March 12, 2021
Recycling electronics waste, or “e-waste,” can help conserve our natural resources and avoid creating more greenhouse gas emissions.
E-waste is the fastest-growing solid-waste stream in the world, but less than 25% of all electronic waste is recycled in the United States; the rest is incinerated or goes to landfills. Electronics are made up of valuable materials, such as metals, glass, and plastics—all of which take energy to mine and manufacture. They can also contain materials that are harmful to the environment, like mercury and beryllium.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3500 US homes per year. This is particularly important because a study conducted in China showed that mining copper, gold, and aluminum is 13 times more expensive than the process of recycling them from old electronics. Plus, if we don’t dispose of our electronics properly, toxic chemicals from e-waste can end up contaminating the water that surrounds landfills. As electronics become more and more integrated into every aspect of our lives, it’s essential that we dispose of them properly.
Before buying a replacement for your electronics, consider repairing them to extend their lifespans and produce less e-waste. Ifixit.org defends the right to repair electronics, as companies may use copyright laws in order to ensure that people don’t use an unauthorized repairer, and teaches people how to repair their own devices.
Extend the lifespan
Companies often incentivize buying a newer model of a gadget by producing software upgrades that can only be downloaded on the newer models of smartphones and computers, but try to use your electronics for as long as possible in order to reduce the amount of e-waste that you create.
Consider reselling your device through websites such as Poshmark or eBay, so its lifespan can be extended. These products will either be reused by someone else or their parts will be recycled. You can find out how to delete all your personal information from your devices. You’ll need to do this before reselling the device.
If you cannot continue to use your electronics or resell them, then ensure that you are recycling them responsibly. Twenty-five states have specific e-waste legislation, so make sure you know the laws in your state (you can find out your state’s legislation on e-waste here). Before recycling, be sure to delete all of your personal information from the device, remove any batteries (as they may need to be recycled separately), and put any broken parts into sealed bags, so any hazardous materials don’t leak. Be sure to use gloves while handling any broken electronics. You can find the nearest places to recycle your electronics through Earth911 or e-stewards.org. Electronics recyclers with the E-Steward label on their websites are certified to meet the cleanest and most responsible standards for e-waste. Some other easy places that accept e-waste for recycling are Best Buy, Staples, and Goodwill. The EPA also has a list of places that accept different types of e-waste for recycling.
How to dispose of batteries
It’s important to remove the batteries before recycling your e-waste. Call2Recycle has a battery recycling locator that makes recycling different types of batteries easy. Make sure to distinguish between your single-use and rechargeable batteries when recycling.
Individual states create their own recycling laws and, unfortunately, do not have a big enough market share to impact electronics companies’ decisions around creating greener or more durable products. Federal laws regarding e-waste would be helpful for improving e-waste recycling infrastructure throughout the United States, through potential tax breaks for companies that have recycling programs for their products, and preventing the export of e-waste to developing countries. Manufacturers need to begin designing electronics that are more durable, cheaper and easier to repair, more easily recyclable, and that use fewer toxic materials.
Some Yale-specific resources for e-waste management are Yale Recycling for Universal Waste and Electronics, a database to find out whether or not something is recyclable, and a Yale Sustainability article on Managing Materials.