Our lives revolve around tech. We communicate with each other, entertain ourselves and make money using technology like cell phones, TVs and laptops. And every year there are newer versions of our favorite devices released to the market, with shiny new features and upgraded storage. This temptation to trade out our tech for the state-of-the-art version on almost a yearly basis has been integrated into society, so much so that throwing out a device that works perfectly isn’t given a second thought.
But this cavalier attitude is creating a buildup of electronic devices in our landfills, which is known as electronic waste (or e-waste). And while recycling these devices can help counteract some of the negative effects of tech turnover, the rate of buildup in our landfills is simply unmatched.
The e-waste epidemic
According to the World Economic Forum, we create 50 million metric tons of e-waste every single year — only 20% of which is properly recycled. The remaining 80% ends up in landfills or is disposed of in a way that can harm the environment. Below are some of the most important stats that highlight the size of this electronic waste problem:
- By 2021, it’s estimated that each person will dispose of an average of 17 pounds of e-waste across the world.
- Electronic waste only accounts for 2% of our total waste, but over 70% of our hazardous waste.
- In the United States, 140 million cell phones are thrown away each year.
- The amount of e-waste created each year weighs as much as 25 million cars.
- Only 19 states have laws that prevent technological devices from being thrown away in the trash.
- 41% of the world’s countries collect information on their e-waste and recycling efforts.
Most of the technology we use today contains toxic chemicals and metals such as mercury, lead and beryllium. When improperly disposed of these devices can begin to leak those dangerous materials, which penetrate our soil and bodies of water. This not only pollutes our drinking water, but alters the chemical make-up of the soil we use to grow our food. Animals and humans alike unwittingly ingest these materials which can lead to serious health issues over time.
Another harmful avenue for getting rid of unwanted machinery is to burn it, which releases those same hazardous chemicals directly into our atmosphere. This contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer and releases harmful toxins into the air we breathe.
Scientists and environmental activists agree that continuing down this same path will cause irrevocable damage to our planet. But this problem is bigger than just consumer habits, as companies can make changes to their processes to help their devices last longer and be recycled easier. However, there are steps everyday consumers can take to reduce their e-waste footprint and make sure they are properly disposing of any tech they no longer need.
Average lifespan of popular technology
While some companies will try to convince you to buy their latest device on a yearly basis, the actual lifespan is often much longer. Being aware of the standard lifespan of all of your devices is important as it can help you prolong the time between buying a new device and ensure that you are getting your money’s worth.
Eight tips for reducing e-waste
Reducing the amount of e-waste that you contribute isn’t terribly complicated. By taking proper care of your current devices and being critical of when you really need a replacement, you can save money and help the planet at the same time.
- Maintain your current devices. This includes proper cleaning and protection from the elements, installing anti-virus software and avoiding overcharging the battery to help extend its lifespan.
- Use online storage. Data storage on individual devices can slow down operational ability over time. By investing in online data storage, you can keep your devices running in better condition without sacrificing your data needs.
- Rent for short-term use. If you need to use a device for a shorter period of time, renting allows for full access without the added environmental impact.
- Think before buying. Try to repair broken devices before tossing to prevent unnecessary waste and spending, for example, replacing a cracked screen.
- Buy with the environment in mind. When you do need to buy a new device, make sure it’s Energy Star rated to reduce your energy consumption levels.
- Educate others. Teach children about the impact of their favorite devices to help instill environmental consideration early on. You can also remind your friends and family about the recycling options available nearby when they get a new device.
- Donate or sell before throwing away. If your device still works, wipe the hard drive and donate it to a local shelter or resale shop. Newer devices could even be sold online to bring in some extra cash.
- Recycle. While it may take extra research, finding services that will properly break down and reuse your devices is key to reducing your environmental impact. Many cities have recycling plants where you can drop off your devices, and some companies will take back their old devices to reuse the parts.
Proper disposal of e-waste
If you’ve tried to salvage a device that is long gone, proper disposal is crucial to keeping that item (and its toxic chemicals) out of the landfill. Luckily, there are many local and nationwide services that will help you give your devices a second life. But before getting rid of your device, it’s important to wipe the hard drive, remove the batteries and take off any protective casing.
When looking for a recycling plant to take your devices to, make sure that it is recommended by the Basel Action Network, an organization dedicated to improving the recycling programs for electronic devices. You can search for a certified recycling plant or store by state, city and zipcode here. If there isn’t a location nearby, you might be able to mail your devices to the closest plant. However, most major cities also have recycling programs that will break down those devices as well (although not often as thoroughly as BAN certified plants).
Another option for recycling your older device is to get in contact with the manufacturer or the company that sold it. Many companies including Apple, Dell, Sony, Best Buy and Costco offer recycling or take-back programs at their individual stores. Some will even reward you for recycling with them with cash or store credit.
If you’re interested in taking your environmental efforts to the next level, or if you’re simply looking to learn more about this epidemic, there are a variety of external resources available. Take a deep dive into the world of e-waste and its potential solutions via the links below.
- Columbia University – What Can We Do About the Growing E-waste Problem?
- The Atlantic – The Global Cost of Electronic Waste
- Rubicon – What are the Biggest Electronic Waste (E-Waste) Problems?
- TIME – The World Has an E-Waste Problem
- Earth 911 – 20 Staggering E-Waste Facts
Technology has changed society for the better in a lot of ways: connecting us to people across the globe, providing instant access to breaking news and showcasing the latest in entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying the benefits of the latest tech, such as streaming Disney+ on your new 4K TV. But by keeping the environment in mind and taking care to keep your devices in the best shape possible, we can all work to help keep tech out of the landfills and in use for many years to come.