What Happens To Recycled Electronics ?

Recycling electronics is on everyone’s to do list.

When I think of the number 24, the TV series or the hours in a day quickly come to mind – not the average number of electronic products per American household.  Eventually it will be time to for you to figure out the best ways for recycling electronics. Watch the video below for a great visual impression of what happens to many electronics.

But upon further reflection, it’s easy to believe that number is accurate, especially as I look around my own home and see my computer, printer, TV, DVD players, gaming systems, clock radio, CD player, cell phone, surge protectors, thumb drives, external hard drives, cordless phone, microwave and digital camera. And let’s not forget the ever-present pile of electronics to be discarded.

Living green and staying green partly depends on responsible recycling of your household electronics. When you consider your carbon footprint, you can’t just figure in the MPG of your car or the energy efficiency of your home. Your footprint also factors in your consumables. Not only did the purchase of each of my electronic devices enlarge my carbon footprint, the eventual disposal of those items will enlarge it even more. Our electronics won’t last forever. Eventually we will want to replace them due to technology advancements, planned obsolescence or sheer boredom. We always want the latest and the greatest, right? In fact, 300 million computers and one billion cell phones are produced every year, with each having an average lifespan of three to five years. So, at a minimum, this volume – and maybe even more – has to be discarded somewhere.

Unlike paper or plastic, most municipalities do not sponsor on-going electronic recycling programs. Usually, you have to be proactive and identify the disposal options yourself. Pretty amazing given the volume of electronics being thrown away.

It’s actually a bit of a challenge to find a responsible disposal option. Did you ever wonder what really happens to those discarded electronics?

Estimates state that 70-80 percent of donated electronics are exported to less developed countries where primitive methods are used to extract any remaining value. This video gives you a glimpse into one such location — e-Stewardship:  Taking Responsibility in the Information Age from Basel Action Network on Vimeo.

So what are your electronic disposal options?

    • Manufacturers – Many leading companies (like Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony) currently take back their own electronics for recycling purposes. Some even offer the option of returning the discarded device in the packaging from the new item.
      Electronics Awaiting Recycling

      Electronics Awaiting Recycling

    • Local Stores – Staples, Costco, Goodwill, AT&T and Verizon will accept certain types of products for recycling.
    • Locator Sites – e-stewards can help you find a local, environmentally-responsible recycler of electronics in your area. This organization follows standards that do not involve the highly controversial practice of exporting hazardous electronic waste to other countries. Earth911 will help you find a nearby drop-off location to recycle an electronic product. Freecycle helps you join your local Yahoo Freecycle Group. As with any discard, be sure to erase the hard drive before letting someone put your castoff to good use for a little while longer.
    • Extended Use or Repairs – The best environmental option is to prolong the useful life of a device. A great deal of energy and greenhouse gases were emitted in manufacturing and shipping the product, so stick with it a little while longer in order to delay its disposal and your consumption of a replacement.

    Toxic Substances In Your Electronics – According to e-Stewards, “Electronic waste isn’t just waste, it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans – some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption and many other health problems if the waste stream is not properly managed.”

    The Dirty Little Secret – While many recycling programs claim that electronic parts are either being reused or properly disposed of, the absence of toxic and hazardous waste shipping laws in the U.S. allows for the exporting of electronics to waste dumps in West Africa, China, India and other parts of the world. Frontline recently sent a team of investigative reporters to Ghana to record the scene and interview the victims at a toxic electronic dump. 

    This unfortunate situation is partly due to the U.S. not ratifying the Basel Convention, which bans the exporting of toxic waste from developed to developing countries. Unfortunately, this allows domestic recyclers to ship e-trash overseas to foreign e-recyclers, who may hazardously incinerate or dangerously burn the waste to extract its precious metals for later sale. 

    Technically, the domestic company can then claim that its used products are being “recycled.” In addition, recyclers and manufacturers may ship computers and laptops abroad under the pretense that they are donating luxury goods to less fortunate people, when really they are expelling junk outside of their jurisdiction. Of course, this is not always the case, but severe environmental and health implications can occur if one of the above scenarios takes place – not to mention the carbon footprint created from sending the products such long distances.

    kenny Be sure to check out our green lifestyle store Green Blizzard Store. Check out these related Green Blizzard articles: Seafood Watch, Are We Eating Fish Into Extinction, Carbon Impact of Meats, Local Produce, Sun Tea, or Growing Basil.


    About the author

    Kenny Frankel

    As graduate of the University of Maryland, Kenny has a major in Environmental Politics and Policy, so he's undoubtedly a guy well versed in environmental issues. Now, post college he is a practitioner of sustainable living and employed by solar installation company. We all will have a deeper green perspective after reading his articles because he brings a big picture insight to our everyday purchase decisions and even recycling.  As an early staff writer for Green Blizzard, Kenny covers environmental policy, big-agricultures impact on the environment, solar energy, recycling, and products made from recycled materials.