Decades of the tech sector’s pressure to “innovate or die” have led to a long list of useful and flashy household tech products, but many of these same devices also have a need to be replaced at almost the same rapid rate that new technology emerges.
“Planned obsolescence just makes it worse. People now expect to get a new computer every three or four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog group. “It’s a mountain that just keeps growing.”
Moreover, there are more than 18 million children and adolescents “actively engaged” in the informal e-waste processing industry, the WHO warned. Children and adolescents are often used to scour through mountains of e-waste in search of valuable materials such as copper and gold “because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults,” the WHO said.
The issue of e-waste is “all about environmental justice at the global level,” Puckett said. “It’s about keeping the rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technologies on developing countries.”
The growing environmental crisis is now catching the attention of lawmakers from Europe to the United States, as well as communities in the developing nations where e-waste has historically been offshored.
EU officials last month approved a new law requiring all phones and electronics to use a standard, brand-agnostic charger, with the potential to limit how many different wires the average consumer needs to own. Three progressive American lawmakers urged in a letter for the US to follow suit.
For now, though, regulation around e-waste exists primarily at the state level and there are few signs of federal policy moving forward in the near future. In its absence, the onus continues to be 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 had to figure out what to do with hundreds of company computers that were no longer up to date. Now, as executive director of non-profit Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group trying to tackle the e-waste crisis by bolstering cooperation between the government, private sector and consumers.
“E-waste is the result of not planning for the product throughout its lifecycle,” Dehmey said. “We’re just reacting to a problem we created years ago. And so if we want to get in front of this thing, we have to think about these things on the front end — what we’re designing and what we as consumers are purchasing as well.”
“We’ve got to figure out ways to use [an electronic device] longer, repair it, reuse it,” Dehmey said, noting this will require mindset shifts from both consumers and companies.
Various coalitions have also emerged in recent years to give consumers the option to responsibly dispose of their devices. Puckett helped launch the e-waste recycling initiative e-Stewards, for example, which certifies and audits electronics recyclers to make sure they are properly disposing of e-waste using “very rigorous standards.”
Jeff Seibert, the chief provocateur (yes, that’s his real title) at SERI, also recommends consumers check with their local municipality to see if they have a designated plan for recycling e-waste. A handful of US retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that let consumers bring in e-waste for recycling in the absence of broader infrastructure. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer credits or free recycling in exchange for trading in used gadgets.
Before opting to donate or recycle used electronics, the EPA recommends considering upgrading the hardware or software of a computer instead of buying a brand new product. If you do decide to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to remove any batteries that may need to be recycled separately. The agency says that recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year. For every one million cell phones that are recycled, the agency says 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
Apart from these options, Seibert simply urges consumers to start thinking about electronics like we think about cars: we don’t trash our vehicles when we need new tires or if the windshield cracks.
“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we’ve got to give them the resources to be able to do that, and that’s still a work in progress.”