Decades of pressure from the technology sector to “innovate or die” has led to a long list of useful and brilliant home tech products, but many of these same devices need to be replaced at the rate at which new technology emerges.
“Planned obsolescence makes it worse. People now expect to buy a new computer every three to four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Seattle-based e-waste watchdog Basel Action Network. group. “It’s a mountain that keeps growing.”
In addition, more than 18 million children and adolescents are “actively engaged” in the informal e-waste recycling industry, the WHO warned. WHO reports that children and teenagers are often used to sift through mountains of e-waste in search of valuable materials such as copper and gold because their small hands are more dexterous than adults’.
Puckett said the e-waste issue “is about environmental justice on a global level.” “This is to prevent rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technologies on developing countries.”
The growing environmental crisis is now attracting the attention of lawmakers from Europe to the United States, as well as communities in developing countries where e-waste has historically been dumped at sea.
EU officials approved a new law last month requiring all phones and electronics to use a standard, brand-agnostic charger, which could limit how many different cords the average consumer has to carry. In a letter, three progressive American lawmakers urged the United States to follow suit.
For now, e-waste regulation exists primarily at the state level and is minimal signs of federal policy moving forward in the near future. In the absence of that, the onus remains on consumers — and companies — to take initiative and find better ways to deal with old electronics.
What consumers and companies can do about it
When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he was to figure out what to do with the hundreds of company computers that are no longer up-to-date. Now, as executive director of the nonprofit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group working to combat the e-waste crisis by fostering collaboration between government, the private sector and consumers.
“E-waste is the result of failure to plan for the entire life cycle of a product,” Dehmey said. “We’re just reacting to a problem that we created years ago. And so if we’re going to get ahead of this thing, we have to think about these things — what we design and what consumers buy.”
“We have to find ways to use it [an electronic device] last longer, repair, reuse,” Dehmey said, noting that this would require mindset changes from both consumers and companies.
Various coalitions have also emerged in recent years to empower consumers to dispose of their devices responsibly. Puckett, for example, helped launch e-Stewards, an e-waste recycling initiative that certifies and audits electronics recyclers to make sure they dispose of e-waste properly using “extremely rigorous standards.”
Jeff Seibert, chief provost of SERI (yes, that’s his real name), also advises consumers to contact their local municipalities to see if they have designated e-waste recycling plans. Several US retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that allow consumers to bring in e-waste for recycling in the absence of broader infrastructure. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer credit or free recycling in exchange for trading in used gadgets.
Before deciding to donate or recycle your used electronics, the EPA recommends that you consider upgrading your computer’s hardware or software instead of buying a new product. If you decide to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to dispose of batteries that must be recycled separately. Recycling one million laptops saves the equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in one year, the agency says. The agency says that for every million cell phones recycled, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
Beyond these options, Seibert simply urges consumers to start thinking about electronics the way we think about cars: we don’t toss our vehicles in the trash when we need new tires or have a cracked windshield.
“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we have to give them the resources to be able to do that, and that’s still a work in progress.”
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