Where Do Electronics Go To Die?

by Nick Livermore

Most of us have old electronics sitting at home that are either broken or are so outdated that we will never bother to turn them on again. Besides throwing them in the trash (which you should NEVER do, of course), selling them at a yard sale or convincing someone to take them because “they still work,” what are you supposed to do?

First of all, let’s examine how electronic goods (let’s call them e-Waste) differ from other recyclable and disposable goods. E-waste generally contains trace amounts of precious metals that can be harvested and reused.  These precious metals in addition to batteries contain harmful acids that, if not discarded properly, may leach harmful substances into water streams and so forth. The E.P.A. estimates that E-waste accounts for only 2% of landfill waste, yet 70% of all toxins resulting from landfills are due to the neglectful disposal of electronic goods! Learn more about the different components that make up E-waste here.

While most households in the US have access to conventional recycling services for paper, plastic and metal goods, disposing of E-waste is a little more difficult. Sadly, it is still legal for consumers to throw E-Waste, with the exception of rechargeable batteries, in the garbage.

Services offered to consumers and businesses varies greatly depending on locale, but generally speaking, retailers and manufacturers will accept electronic goods and recycle them or direct you to an appropriate organization. For a list of participating organizations and retails see the EPA E-Cycling center page. For more cumbersome electronics where drop off and conventional shipping is not an option, GreenDisk offers a great resource for discarding/recycling e-Waste.

Where it goes from there depends on the company and what type of product it is. Many retailers and manufacturers have contracts with specialized electronics recycling centers. While many of the components in these electronics are quite valuable, the high cost of sorting and transporting to special facilities negates much of the profit. It is in the interest of the recycling companies to forge contracts with large retailers and manufacturers and to streamline their productivity in order to turn a profit. Ideally, the convenience of this process works in the favor of the consumer. Unfortunately, it is just as convenient and cost-effective to put E-waste on to a ship and send it to a landfill across the other side of the world. This is becoming an increasingly serious issue and organizations are committed to holding polluting nations accountable.

For more information on the controversies surround the dumping of E-waste and to see what you can do to tackle the problem (besides E-cycle responsibly!), check out related pages on:

–       GreenPeace

–       Electronics Takeback Coalition

–       PBS

In a slightly-related side note, we discovered this fascinating video that explains how conventional recycling is sorted.

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