Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Rewire and Peril and Promise.
It begins slowly: a forgotten cable here, an old iPod there. Eventually you realize that you’ve created a little electronics graveyard in a corner of your home, or as Amanda LaGrange calls it, a “pile of denial.”
“We get attached to our electronics. It’s easy to store them and forget about it,” said LaGrange, CEO of Tech Dump, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit organization that takes donations of old electronics, refurbishes about 15 percent of them, and recycles the rest.
The Global E-Waste Monitor estimates that people generated 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste around the world in 2016. The United States is responsible for 6.3 million metric tons, or 14 percent of the world’s total.
Why does it matter what happens to our electronic trash? Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, contains both valuable, reusable materials and toxic components. Reusable materials range from plastic and copper wiring to bits of precious metals such as gold and platinum. Common hazardous waste in consumer electronics includes lead and mercury. Proper handling of these materials ensures that they won’t end up in the air, soil and waterways, ultimately impacting human, animal and environmental health.
There is currently no federal law that addresses the disposal of electronic waste, but 25 states have passed legislation outlining e-waste recycling and manufacturer take-back programs. You can take the issue into your own hands and be a more responsible electronics consumer by reducing, reusing and recycling, just like you would any kind of waste.
The easiest way to produce less e-waste is to buy fewer electronics. Someone who replaces their smartphone every year will produce a lot more e-waste than someone who waits two or three years between phones. There can be a lot of stigma around using older technology, especially something as visible as cellphones, but you should evaluate whether you really need the yearly incarnation of your chosen cellphone brand.
Unfortunately, tech companies often create products that become obsolete and push consumers toward the newest model, said Josh Lepawsky, associate professor of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of the new book “Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste.” An example of this “planned obsolescence” coming to a head is the recent set of lawsuits filed against Apple for throttling the performance of older iPhone models.
However, in the “reduce, reuse and recycle” model, reduction is the most important step. The manufacturing process is where the most waste comes from, Lepawsky said, in the form of carbon dioxide emissions, water use and processed chemicals. Focusing only on recycling “mis-takes one small node in the network for the network itself,” he said, and doesn’t absolve us of taking responsibility for reducing our consumption.
Does anything in your “pile of denial” still function? If you don’t need it anymore, but it still works, pass it on to someone who can use it rather than throwing it away.
Working cellphones can typically be donated directly to local shelters that can pass them on to clients for free. Small appliances and cables can be given to charity organizations or neighbors through Nextdoor or Craigslist’s Free section.
Retailers sometimes accept high-value working electronics such as smartphones and tablets as trade-ins, depending on the age of the electronics. But if your trade-in value is very low, it might be worthwhile to simply donate it to someone in need.
(An important note: When you’re donating or recycling electronics, make sure to back-up and permanently delete your data from the devices. The best e-waste recyclers will ensure data destruction as well.)
What if your gadget is broken, but you’d like to repair it? Manufacturers have made it difficult to easily fix electronics yourself. Some state legislatures have been considering measures to ensure consumers and repair shops have the ability to purchase what they need to fix their electronics themselves: manuals, tools and parts.
Opponents of so-called “right to repair” laws have argued for software copyrights and cautioned against potential injuries. LaGrange said that with a dearth of repair part options, her organization harvests parts to use for other electronics that could be refurbished. Both she and Lepawsky noted how easy it is to find parts and manuals for vehicle repair and said that consumer electronics deserve the same options.
If a second life for your old electronics is out of the realm of possibility, the best way to get rid of your stash is to recycle it. Work with an organization or program (like the ones below) to make sure your electronics end up in a good place.
National retailers like Best Buy and Staples accept many items for free in store. Some retailers, such as Apple, also offer the option to send in items through the mail. (However, a report from last year shows that Apple doesn’t refurbish products sent in to its recycling program, because of the company’s commitment to data destruction.)
Working with local nonprofit recyclers to get rid of your old stuff is an option that comes with added social benefits. Impact Recyclers is a network of nonprofit e-waste recyclers that have signed on to one or both of the e-waste recycling certification programs in the U.S.: E-Stewards and R2.
According to Impact Recyclers’ website, the group “(creates) jobs for (people) who face severe barriers to work—people on the autism spectrum, formerly incarcerated or with physical disabilities.” Other electronic waste recycling nonprofits donate proceeds to causes such as gorilla conservation.
Cities, counties, and waste and recycling companies often accept hazardous waste, including e-waste, on special collection days. Check out E-cycling Central for more information about a range of electronics recycling options in your state, or to add your local program to the list.
Many electric utilities offer money for large appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners, which are required by law to be recycled properly. Keep in mind that some collectors charge fees for things like CRT TVs and computer monitors because the market for the glass is not very lucrative and they also contain toxic chemicals.
When you get rid of your broken electronics, make sure you work through reputable organizations and programs.
Recent studies reported on by PBS Newshour suggest that some shady organizations send e-waste abroad to places with less rigorous environmental and worker safety standards, rather than truly being recycled.
Without these standards, workers risk exposure to toxic metals and chemicals by handling the waste, and through improper disposal of materials that can leach into land and waterways and lead to higher incidences of breathing problems, birth defects and cancer.
Reusing and recycling options abound, but the most meaningful way you can be a responsible electronics consumer is to choose a product with functionalities you intend to use for many years and to take good care of it.
This story is part of our partnership with Peril and Promise, The Challenge of Climate Change, a national public media initiative reporting on the human stories of climate change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is also provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.
Jen is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental social science at Arizona State University, currently residing in Minneapolis. As an educator and researcher she is frequently pondering the intersections of technology, culture, the environment, policy and politics. She is deeply uneasy with the lack of Oxford commas in this writing. You can follow her on Twitter @soundbitelife.