New and changing technology continues to revolutionize the way that we live. A library of information is now available to us with a touch of a finger or a click of a mouse. High-tech mobile devices keep us in constant touch with family and friends. Communities around the world are now connected through social media websites. Rapidly changing technology, however, requires new products and new purchases, and a surplus of outdated electronics has resulted in an excess of electronic waste worldwide.
Electronic Waste in Landfills
In the United States, only around 20 percent of electronic waste, or e-waste, is recycled each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Only around 8 percent of cell phones are recycled. The remaining televisions, computers and mobile devices find their way into landfills and incinerators. Electronics can contain a broad range of materials that can be hazardous to human health, including lead, cadmium, nickel and mercury.
The EPA strongly advocates for recycling old electronics, but not every recycling organization handles e-waste properly. Some companies export electronic waste to countries where the recycling process proceeds in a crude and dangerous fashion, contaminating air, water and soil. Copper wires covered with insulation, for example, are extracted from electronic components and then simply burned to remove the insulation, releasing dioxins into the environment. Cyanide used to remove gold from circuit boards is disposed of like trash.
The Benefits of Proper Recycling
According to the EPA, there is more gold and copper in a metric ton of circuit boards than can be mined from a metric ton of ore. Electronic waste can be a valuable source of precious metals and engineered plastic. Complex electronics can contain up to 60 elements. When existing electronic components are recycled, fewer natural materials need to be extracted from the earth, conserving natural resources, reducing pollution and saving energy. It is estimated that recycling one million computers would save enough electricity to power over 3,500 homes in a year.
In the US, over a thousand cities have set up recycling programs. Most offer electronic waste collection as special events. A wide array of private and public organizations have also established programs to accept electronics for recycling.
Donating Used Electronics
Donating used but still working electronics remains the best option for disposing of electronic waste. Donating not only extends the life of computers, monitors and cell phones but provides a number of social benefits as well. Communities that might otherwise have no access to the devices can enjoy the opportunity to participate in the digital world. Businesses and individuals may also be able to take advantage of tax credits for donated equipment.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the US produces around 3 million tons of electronic waste each year. China generates around 2.3 million tons. By donating outdated electronics to people who need them and by properly recycling e-waste, the global village can enjoy the benefits of new technology without harming the environment.