Who doesn’t love a new tech gadget? And with that gadget comes a new cord, a new charger, new earbuds, maybe even a new case and other new accessories. So, what happens to the old stuff? It’s called e-waste and it’s a becoming a major global issue. Check out the infographic below to learn more about e-waste and what we can do to stop the river of device debris.
E-waste is the global accumulation of discarded electrical and electronic devices, including computers, TVs, and mobile phones. It can be broken or outdated, unusable or simply undesirable, but it can also be reusable, resalable and otherwise recyclable materials as well. Essentially, anything that is related to modern technology devices is considered e-waste once it’s no longer being used.
To get a better idea of what this means, think of 100,000 smartphones. Inside these handheld computers is the equivalent of 55 pounds of silver, 5.3 pounds of gold, and 1,984 pounds of copper—all recyclable and highly-desirable materials. Unfortunately, according to the EPA, only 12.5 percent of that e-waste is recycled.
If the materials are recyclable, why isn’t that number better? Because the e-waste recycling process isn’t as efficient and the problem is far outpacing the solution. In fact, the United States is contributing 9.4 million tons per year, making it the world’s top contributor to e-waste. About 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste is shipped to developing countries every year, compounding the material issue with shipping and transportation costs. Ours is a culture of accelerating digitization, moving so quickly that perhaps we cannot keep up, so the problem is shipped elsewhere.
Another way to look at the issue is to compare new tech to a long-lasting old tech: automobiles. Every year, nearly 15 million junked cars or end-of-life vehicles are sent off to scrap yards where they are recycled because cars are built with over 95% of recyclable materials. The auto glass becomes glass bottles and countertops; the steel becomes bridges and buildings; the engine oil becomes lubricant and furnace fuel; and in a lovely twist of irony, the aluminum in car parts becomes the casings for iPads and iPhones. The list of new treasures from old trash goes on, including new cars. Automobile recycling in the US and Canada provides enough steel to produce roughly 13 million new vehicles per year. Because of responsible recycling and utilization of materials, a car can end up “providing” long after its 8-15 year lifespan.
By the standards of human history, electronics are still a new invention, so there is still hope that smarter ecological materials and effective methods to repurpose them will lead to a significant waste reduction of our technology. Until then, we can do our part to make environmentally-friendly choices when disposing of old technology. The lifespan of our devices may be only 2-7 years, but the impact on our global world is much longer and it’s worth a second thought.