Electronic devices, from computers to MP3 players to smart phones, are continually discarded in landfills, leading to dangerous health and environmental risks. Commonly referred to as e-waste, these gadgets belong to one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. Even worse, toxic materials can leak from electronics into the soil and ground water, contaminating the environment and exposing residents to hazardous materials.
Recycling e-waste is less common than other materials, simply because it takes more effort to make sure it’s done responsibly. Electronics have to be broken down by trained technicians in order to preserve all the useable components and prevent contamination. And not every service or company that claims to recycle electronics does so responsibly--many simply ship appliances to third world countries where environmental regulations are non-existent.
Here’s what you need to know about e-waste recycling:
1. WHAT IS E-WASTE?
A great deal of what is labeled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all; rather, it is whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery. Computers (including keyboard, mouse, CPU, etc.), monitors, printers, fax machines, copy machines, network equipment, cables, telephones, televisions, microwaves, video games, cell phones, pagers, radios, stereos, VCRs and electronic toys, are all considered to be e-waste.
2. WHERE SHOULD E-WASTE BE RECYCLED?
E-waste can’t be recycled by your municipal recycling facility (unless they’re holding a special collection event) and should NEVER be disposed of in the landfill (aka trash can). E-waste can be donated to those who will repair it for further use, or recycled via a certified facility.
3. HOW IS E-WASTE PROCESSED?
One way e-waste is processed is by melting circuit boards, burning cable sheathing to recover copper wire and open-pit acid leaching for separating metals of value. Conventional method employed is mechanical shredding and separation but the recycling efficiency is low. Alternative methods such as cryogenic decomposition have been studied for printed circuit board recycling, and some other methods are still under investigation.
4. WHO ARE E-WASTE RECYCLERS?
Not everyone who claims to be an electronics recycler is worthy of your gadgets. You should seek recyclers that are third-party certified to an accredited electronics recycler certification program. EPA encourages use of electronics recyclers certified to standards that require safe handling of used electronics and adherence to high environmental standards. The program that has most traction right now — as well as the support of the EPA — is something called e-Stewards, which is certified by an audit. The Responsible Recycling (R2) programcontains some elements of what’s in e-Stewards, but the two programs do have differences. Some electronics retailers, like Best-Buy and Staples, offer drop-off facilities for all brands of electronics, while The Electronic Industries Alliance, and Earth 911 websites identify electronic equipment recyclers in many areas around the country.
5. WHY RECYCLE E-WASTE?
Electronics are made from valuable resources, such as precious metals, copper, and engineered plastics, all of which require considerable energy to process and manufacture. Recycling electronics recovers valuable materials and as a result, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollution, save energy, and save resources by extracting fewer raw materials from the earth. For example, recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 US homes in a year.
Beth Buczynski is an environmental writer and editor living in the Rocky Mountain West. Follow her on Twitter as @ecosphericblog.
Recycling is more than just a way to conserve resources and preserve our environment, it is a wonderful means to bring uniqueness, and sometimes old-world charm, into a living environment. Green building architects, contractors, and interior designers can help you search for appropriate recycled materials and furniture that can add characters and diversity to your living/working space. I am a big fan of getting the best of both worlds.