E-waste may sound like a punk band from the future, but in reality, it’s a very real problem we are facing today. E-waste refers to consumer and industrial electronics that have come to the end of their useful life and are ready to be replaced.
Typically, electronics qualifying as e-waste are those that are thrown away rather than recycled or reused, meaning they have found their way to landfills or have been littered to pollute natural environments.
The last decade or so has seen an incredible surge in the production of consumer electronics, naturally creating an abundance of e-waste as a result.
The vast majority of American adults own a smartphone, and many replace theirs once every few years. The same is true for laptops, televisions, gaming consoles, and other consumer electronics since their manufacturers are constantly churning out new generations of the product.
Electronics aren’t going anywhere, and while this may be great news for you online gamers, selfie-takers, and tv binge-watchers, but it isn’t such great news for the planet.
Comprised of plastics, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, even simple consumer electronics pose a serious risk to environmental health and safety.
In this guide, we’ll cover some of the key things you should know about e-waste, discuss how e-waste is affecting the planet, and go over some ways that you can help make a difference.
What Becomes E-Waste?
As mentioned, e-waste refers to electronics that have reached the end of their useful life, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
The key term here is “useful”, a qualifier that may leave you feeling a little confused about whether you need a new product or not. Many electronics reach the end of their “useful lives” purely by being pushed out of popular demand by new generations of electronics.
In the electronics industry, products are only “useful” as long as they are new and/or technologically up to date.
Though some types of electronics are kept or used for longer than others, even large and expensive items are easy to find piled up in landfills. A few of the products that commonly become e-waste include:
- Microwave ovens
- Coffee makers
- Tools (i.e. drills)
- Computer monitors
- Cell phones
- Gaming consoles
- Speakers and stereo equipment
Why E-Waste Happens
Electronics are obviously and unapologetically a part of our everyday lives, and frankly, there are a lot of reasons to be happy about that.
Laptops have enabled us to take work on the go rather than forcing us to stay in one place and have completely changed the way we receive an education. Cell phones have given us additional safety, providing us a safe and easy way to get in touch with people when we need them the most.
Gaming consoles, TVs, tablets, and other entertainment devices provide much-needed escapes from the stressors of everyday life.
While we love our Netflix, Candy Crush, and Animal Crossing as much as the next person, we can’t help but cringe every time we see long lines of people waiting every time a new generation of phone comes out.
You see, a huge part of why e-waste happens is because electronics are designed to be thrown away in the first place. We currently exist in a linear economy, one that takes resources, uses them, then throws them away.
Electronics manufacturers design new generations of technology with the landfill in mind, knowing that their creations will be thrown away within a few short years to be replaced by a slightly different version, allowing the manufacturer to rake in the cash while the landfills rake in the e-waste.
Aside from money-motivated business practices and novelty fuelled purchasing habits, the broader reason for e-waste is simply that there is no infrastructure in place to environmentally manage electronics waste.
Though electronics have been around for quite some time, the last few decades have seen massive booms in consumer electronics purchases.
As technology grew, so did sales, and so did the general hunger for new forms of media and technology.
While personal electronics ownership became more common, electronics disposal stayed much the same, with little being done to adapt to the quickly growing electronics industry.
Additionally, little has been done by electronics manufacturers to find environmental alternatives to some of the harsher materials used in the creation of their products.
All in all, we simply don’t have a widely used or reliable system for electronics disposal just yet, leaving the responsibility to the consumer and the consumer alone.
Unfortunately, without much public education on the topic of reusing or recycling old electronics, most consumers just end up keeping their electronics hidden away in drawers until the day they grow tired of seeing them accumulate dust and throw them away.
E-Waste and the Environment
In addition to being generally wasteful, our global electronics consumption and waste are having a real impact on the environment.
While it may be easy for us to quickly move on from the memories of our old electronics, those devices won’t be moving on any time soon...at least not without a lot of heat.
There are basically two places your electronics could end up when you throw them away: the incinerator or the landfill.
To reduce the need for landfill space, some electronics are incinerated (burned) once they have been thrown away.
While incineration does help to reduce the amount of landfill pileup, that doesn’t mean it is a more environmentally friendly option.
Incinerating used electronics results in the release of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury into the atmosphere where they can be absorbed into the environment and food chain or inadvertently inhaled. If over-exposed, humans (and animals) can develop a variety of health conditions related to heavy metal toxicity.
The millions of tons of electronics that are not incinerated can usually be found slowly decaying in landfills. Despite taking quite a bit longer, sending e-waste to the landfill has much the same results as incineration.
While incinerated electronics release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the atmosphere, landfill e-waste slowly releases toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the surrounding soil and wider environment.
Taking Action Against E-Waste
Despite growing global waste and pollution, many individuals, businesses, and local governments have raised concerns over the impact this has on the environment.
In the U.S., 25 states have specific laws pertaining to e-waste disposal in an effort to reduce environmental impact and promote sustainable waste management practices.
Despite only half of U.S. states actively participating in reducing e-waste and promoting recycling programs, all 50 are required to adhere to strict federal regulations regarding e-waste and electronics recycling.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act encourages recycling, discourages open dumping, and specifically makes the dumping of hazardous e-waste (like cathode ray tubes) illegal, requiring these items to instead be managed as hazardous waste.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act makes the creators of hazardous substances and hazardous waste responsible for proper disposal, even if the item has changed hands multiple times.
Because of this, many companies have begun their own recycling programs, asking customers to send in their old devices to be reused or recycled rather than throwing them away.
What You Can Do to Reduce E-Waste
If you are feeling dissatisfied with the few e-waste disposal options available to you don’t worry, you are most certainly not alone. There are tons of people and companies out there that feel the same frustrations, and some that are actually doing something about it.
Here are a few ways you can help to reduce e-waste yourself:
Wait to Upgrade
Look, we get it, the newest generation of phone comes in orange, and they’ve never had orange before, but does a change that small really make a difference?
One of the biggest causes of e-waste is the consumer compulsion to purchase new versions of items that are still completely functional. We have been conditioned to think that having the previous generation of technology holds us back and keeps us out of date.
While this may have been true when generations of technology had decades in between them, the 21st century has proven that new electronics come out practically every day.
To reduce the e-waste you produce, avoid upgrading to the latest version of your phone, computer, or game console until you actually need to.
Oftentimes you’ll be able to update the software on your devices to keep up with the latest tech, and though you may not have some of the flashy features, you will soon realize that you aren’t really missing out.
So, unless your device is beyond repair (like the time I spilled a whole bottle of olive oil on my open laptop), wait for the upgrade.
When you are ready to upgrade, consider choosing a refurbished device rather than purchasing a new one. Refurbished devices have gotten sort of a bad rep, probably due to how much difficulty people have had purchasing used items in the past.
At Pela, we have partnered with Back Market, a great marketplace for refurbished electronics.
Remember: refurbished devices are not the same as used devices. Refurbished devices have been cleaned, repaired, tested, and factory re-set to be essentially as good as new.
Used devices could be in any condition, have no guarantee of authenticity, and have rarely been cleaned, treated, or reset before resale.
Repair What You Already Have
When something breaks, it can be easy to write it off as a useless piece of junk just taking up space in your home. While you may immediately want to throw it away and purchase a new device, take a moment to weigh your options carefully.
When deciding whether to repair your device or purchase a new one, consider how extensive the damage is; if your device can reasonably be salvaged and returned to working condition, it is absolutely worth it to do the repair rather than buy new.
Recycle Your Electronics
Once your electronics do reach the end of their lives, you can responsibly dispose of your old device by recycling it!
Each state has its own electronics recycling programs and policies, so check with your local recycling facility to find out what you need to do. Because electronic devices are largely made of metal and plastic, their components are readily recyclable and can be made into new products.
If you can’t find a local recycling program, many manufacturers will accept old devices to be reused for parts.
If you can’t find a recycling center or think your electronics might be in good enough condition to continue being used, you should consider donating your devices.
Many programs refurbish devices that are already in good condition to be shipped overseas to developing countries or given to people in need. Those items that cannot be refurbished and reused are usually sold for parts, helping to fund the continued efforts of these groups.
Making Sustainable Choices
Now that you know a little bit more about electronics, e-waste, and the environment, you are probably eager to see where you can reduce your own personal e-waste.
As you go through your old electronics and decide how you’ll sustainably dispose of them, consider adding more sustainable choices to your lifestyle. Living eco-friendly can be easy, and even small changes to your habits can make a big difference.
At Pela, we’ve been working to make a difference in the world of electronics by reducing plastic waste. Our Pela Cases are a completely plastic-free phone case option made from natural materials that are 100% compostable. Seriously!
Unlike some products that claim to be “biodegradable” but really can take decades to even begin breaking down, a Pela Case will compost completely in your home compost pile in just a few short months.
Reducing your e-waste and plastic waste footprints is an amazing start to living a sustainable life, and soon, you’ll be comfortable making sustainable choices in every part of your life!
By switching to eco-friendly phone cases, our customers have helped us keep 313,528.6 pounds of plastic from being produced. Join the fight against waste today and visit Pela to learn more.