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Dealing with the Denial of E-Waste

Are you in denial about the environmental impacts of your tech devices? Sure they are fun, and often necessary, even a lifeline during the COVID lockdowns, so perhaps it is not all that surprising that we don’t like to pay attention to the environmental and social issues of the e-waste associated with our tech habits.

It has become downright impossible to live a modern life without producing electronic waste. Electronic devices play an important role in our everyday lives. Let’s face it…who can go a whole day (hahaha, a few hours) without checking their phone or email, or snapping a photo?

It’s not uncommon for every member of a household to have their own cellphone, laptop, camera, etc. On top of that, shared electronic devices such as televisions, DVD players, gaming consoles, printers, and more, are often found within one household. 

With all these electronic devices around, it is inevitable that we will contribute to the production of e-waste. After all, every action and certainly every device has to have an impact - we just need to get out of denial about it.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste, also referred to as e-waste, is electronic equipment that is no longer wanted or no longer works. Not only can the device itself count as e-waste, but the cords, chargers, and batteries used to power these devices can become e-waste as well.

When electronic devices have reached the end of their useful life, they are often thrown out or discarded, therefore becoming electronic waste. Unfortunately, this dangerous practice is quite common.

People not only discard devices that no longer work, but devices that work just fine as well. These perfectly good devices are being tossed out because they are being replaced by newer and shinier versions. For example, think about the frequency at which Apple has released their iPhone models. In their first 14 years, Apple produced 29 different models of the iPhone!

In addition, some electronic devices are being designed using a technique called planned obsolescence that renders a product unusable after a predetermined amount of time.

The dangers of e-waste

Sending your electronic waste to the landfill can cause serious environmental harm. 

Most electronic devices contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, which can leach into the surrounding environment when buried in a landfill. This causes significant damage to our soil, water, air, and wildlife.

In addition to the waste issue, we are throwing away valuable metals that have significant upstream impacts from mining, smelting, processing and transportation. All of this input energy and environmental impact is amplified when we only use a device for a short time or allow those resources to be sent to a landfill.

Instead, make sure that your household’s used electronic devices are making it to a recycling program or, better yet, to an electronics take-back program where they can be reused.

In addition, we should all consider the amount of e-waste we produce in the first place. You can read more about the right to repair technology and iFixit to learn more about prolonging the life of your electronics. After all, it is beneficial to reduce the number of electronics we consume before moving to reuse and recycling.

Electronic recycling

When your device is no longer usable, electronic recycling is one way to minimize your environmental impact. 

Although your broken device may no longer serve you, it is filled with precious resources that can be recycled and reused. Materials such as glass, plastic, gold, silver, and copper have a wide variety of uses and are constantly being extracted from the environment. By recycling old electronics, these materials can be recovered and put to use!

The process of electronic recycling differs from organization to organization, but in general, electronics are separated into plastics, metals, and internal circuitry, while waste items are shredded into small pieces that are further sorted into different elements.

The separated materials are then prepared for sale as raw materials that can be used in a variety of items, not just electronics!

The selection of electronic recycling facilities will differ depending on your location. In many cases, there will be municipal collection sites such as waste depots and recycling centres that you can utilize. Try searching “Electronic waste recycling (insert your city)” on Google and look into your options!

If you live in Canada, the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Singapore, or South Korea, you can search for an E-Steward Certified e-waste recycler in your area.

E-Steward ensures that e-waste organizations, businesses, and companies dispose of their waste responsibly and do not contribute to the illegal trade of e-waste. Past unregulated practices have meant very unsafe working conditions for people in countries receiving the e-waste, and has led to large amounts of water and soil contamination. 

Electronic take back

Other than municipal recycling sites, electronic waste may be collected through take-back programs. Manufacturers “take-back” their products in order to reduce the company’s environmental impact and this is a great way to close the loop on the material use, helping resources get back into the production of other useful devices.

Once the electronic is returned to the manufacturer, the materials used to create the device can be recycled, and the manufacturer can reuse these materials in new products.

Another alternative use for returned electronics is the process of remanufacturing. Manufacturers are able to restore or refurbish old devices so that they work as well as new ones. As an added bonus, these refurbished electronics are often sold at a discounted price. We have often bought refurbished electronics for the environmental benefits as well as for the cost savings!

An example of a company that has an electronic take-back program is Best Buy. When you have batteries or electronic devices to get rid of, you are able to bring them to Best Buy and place them in their drop-off buckets where they will be disposed of properly and safely.

Just don’t forget to remove all data from your device before you do so!

If you are looking for more companies that offer take-back and recycling programs, check out this list that was compiled by the Electronics Takeback Coalition. This list contains manufacturer take-back programs in the United States, but as many of these devices are sold worldwide, it is worth looking into no matter where you live!

Less is Best!

In the end, yes, recycling is vital, as is demanding tech companies create repairable and more sustainable devices. But, as with most consumer goods, just having fewer is one of the most sustainable approaches around. By the time I replaced my old phone, it was what I considered to be a rather heroic old age for a cell phone - 8 years of use! So, I justify buying the best ones available now in the hopes that it too will last me many many years. Maybe by the time I replace this one, there will be a much more sustainable phone on the market...



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