Your old cellphone and printer are e-waste. Here's why you should recycle them responsibly
Think about what's in your trash bin. Do you see your old smartphone in it, the one that was new until this year?
About eight out of every 10 electronic devices in the world end up in a landfill or unsafe scrapyard, making it e-waste.
E-waste, any device with a battery or plug that is discarded, is also the fastest growing waste stream on the planet. The U.S. is one of the largest producers of it, about 46 pounds of it per person in 2019.
But unlike other materials that don’t make it to a recycling facility, e-waste holds both extremely valuable metals and hazardous substances that can pollute groundwater and soil, and poison people. Regulations for its disposal vary around the world, and recycling rates have barely increased in recent years.
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What is e-waste?
A broken video recorder, a bag of unsorted cables, the old printer gathering dust in the bottom drawer, and the not-quite-newest iPhone in the market.
E-waste includes both devices that are beyond repair and those that are deemed unwanted by the former owner. It includes all electronic devices and electronic parts discarded, like computers, keyboards, remote controls, wires, video game systems, toner cartridges, stereos, tablets, chargers, and home appliances like microwaves, electric cookers, and heaters.
The list of e-waste is expanding. A variety of new products continue adding to the list of to-be electrical waste.
People around the world are also consuming and discarding tech at a faster rate. The reason is likely a mix of more items designed to go obsolete, designing products that don't last as long, and the desire of global consumers for the latest, faster, lighter gadget.
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What's in e-waste?
E-waste can contain gold, lithium, cobalt, copper, silver, platinum, palladium and nickel. Recovering these precious and sometimes scarce metals for reuse is both a financial and an environmental opportunity. Using them again helps build more circular economies and reduces the demand for mining them.
E-waste is also hazardous. Most devices are coupled with lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants. The metals and toxic substances can leach into water and soil and poison both wildlife and humans.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control in 2012 at an electronic scrap recycling facility in the U.S. detected high levels of lead in the blood and urine of employees and found some were overexposed to cadmium in air.
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Where does e-waste end up?
About 17% of all e-waste worldwide is collected and recycled, according to the latest report of the Global E-Waste Monitor, an international collaborative led by the United Nations University.
After it is collected by recycling companies, retailers, city programs or nonprofits, e-waste can be refurbished and sold, or disassembled and recycled.
E-waste that is still functioning or can be fixed, creating a potentially huge source of revenue.
About $19 billion of used electronic products were sold in the United States in 2011, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. Some $1.45 billion worth of goods were exported, mainly to Korea, Japan, Mexico, India, Hong Kong and China.
The e-waste that is collected and sent to recycling facilities is also profitable.
In recycling facilities, metals like gold, silver, copper, and valuable elements like cobalt, can be extracted from circuit boards and batteries. Potentially, $10 billion could be made from the global e-waste that is currently collected and, presumably, recycled.
In 2019, the United States produced about 46 pounds of e-waste per person and collected and recycled 15% of it. Northern Europe had a nearly equal production of e-waste per capita yet collected and recycled over half of it.
The rest of e-waste is largely untracked, as few countries have policies to track and follow its flow.
Most of it is suspected to end up in landfills, or quietly exported to clandestine scrapyards in countries with lax environmental and labor laws. To extract valuable materials, workers, earning as little as $2 a day, incinerate the waste or soak it in acid.
The Basel Action Network, a globally recognized nonprofit that follows e-waste flows and advocates for better policy, has found most e-waste ends in Asia, even when it’s handed to a recycler.
The organization planted 205 trackers on monitors and printers before giving them to U.S. e-waste recycling companies and found that 40% of them were not recycled in the country as expected by customers.
Total Reclaim, a Seattle-based company advertising sustainable practices, was charged with fraud after the transparency report found they sold over 8 million pounds of flat-screens to Hong Kong, while telling clients the electronics would be “recycled responsibly” in the U.S.
Regulations for recycling e-waste vary across the world. About 30% of all countries still have no federal legislation for it, the United States included.
Despite lack of federal laws, 25 states have passed some sort of e-waste legislation and banned disposing electronics in landfills. Arizona is not one of them.
Since 2009 the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has worked to create e-waste awareness, working with communities and schools. The agency helped organized e-waste collection events from 2009 to 2015, diverting about 2.7 million pounds of electronics from landfills. E-recyclers started charging for these events after 2015, so collection has become more sporadic. By law, ADEQ cannot require recycling or recycling data. Voluntary surveys show that the amount of e-waste recycled in Arizona in 2021 was at least 804,000 pounds.
What can you do?
Resist the desire to constantly upgrade your tech.
For electronics that can be fixed, find them a second owner. Donate to Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology or ask about donations to nonprofits and schools in your community.
For tech that seems beyond repair, take it to a responsible recycling company or ask your city about public collection events.
The quicker you act, the more likely is that the components are reused, according to the National Center of Electronics Recycling. If your gadget gathers dust and the technology falls behind, it's less likely its parts can be recovered.
Locate certified e-waste recyclers in your area and make sure they hold under Responsible Recycling (R2) certification, or abide by e-Stewards standards. The e-Stewards initiative, launched by the Basel Action Network, requires that “no hazardous, illegal e-waste will be exported to developing nations, be disposed into landfills, or recycled using forced or child labor.”
Here is where you can find them in Arizona:
There are 24 certified e-waste recycling companies in Arizona, according to Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, five of them have a public drop-off location in Phoenix. If you believe there is an omission, you can contact email@example.com. The only two companies listed in the e-Stewards initiative are Electronics Responsible Recyclers (ER2) and Ingram Micro Services, LLC.
If you live in a rural area, a great way to start e-waste recycling is by asking local electronic stores, as well as office stores, if they have a program to recycle electronics. Retailers like Best Buy and Verizon offer a recycling program for their products.
Staples drop-off sites throughout Arizona receive, and pay for, a long list of gadgets, as well as batteries and printer toners. For Earth Day weekend, the company will give customers 15% off in-store purchases of $30 or more when they recycle in store. From April 16 through June 17, customers can receive double rewards for recycling in-store. For Earth Day weekend only customers can get 15% off in-store purchases of $30. Look at what you can and cannot recycle with them.
Arizona Complete Electronic Recycling will also have a e-waste collection event on Saturday, April 22 at 4700 S. Mill Ave, Tempe, from 9:00 a.m. to noon.
Clara Migoya covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What is e-waste and why you should recycle it responsibly