When an electronic device breaks or no longer serves the user, one of several things is likely to happen.
That device may be professionally repaired or refurbished and go on to be used again, it may be salvaged for useable parts while all damaged or unusable components are discarded, or—and this has become one of the most common outcomes—it’s simply thrown away, ultimately ending up in a landfill.
Discarded and used electronics become what’s now widely known as e-waste. E-waste adds up to 50 million tons of garbage, and that’s just a single year’s worth. Fewer than 20 percent of these used electronics are properly recycled, which means that billions of dollars worth of parts and materials are discarded.
Apart from valuable materials and components being lost, e-waste leads to toxic chemicals and substances leaching into the environment. The causes of e-waste build-up are many and the problem continues to be exasperated.
Electronics companies continue to push consumers to buy the next flashy upgrade and an otherwise viable technology is rendered obsolete. For those consumers who wish to use their devices for as long as possible, upkeep and repair options are limited, to the point where it’s often more economical to just buy a new device.
Even though companies and consumers are increasingly aware of the problem, e-waste solutions have been elusive so far. Is there a better way to keep used electronics out of landfills and retain their usefulness? Just what makes e-waste recycling so challenging?
The Problems With Phone, Tablet, And PC Recycling
The problem of e-waste is not just a matter of planned obsolesce and neglect; used electronic devices are notably difficult to recycle because that outcome wasn’t planned for.
The vast majority of consumer electronics were designed and manufactured to run smoothly for a time, but the components and materials that enabled that weren’t chosen for their recyclability or ability to be reclaimed at a product’s end-of-life stage.
There are also a number of toxic substances contained in screens, batteries, and other parts, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Safely disassembling an electronic device for recycling and appropriately handling and containing these substances is difficult, costly, and time-consuming.
In addition to the toxic elements, some materials that are prevalent in consumer electronics are simply difficult to economically recycle, like blended plastics. As devices become smaller and sleeker, they are typically held together using glue and other adhesives, rather than fasteners, making the disassembly and salvage process that much more complicated.
Recycling a single electronic device poses many challenges. Attempting to scale up the process to make a dent in the massive amounts of e-waste stacking up every year is daunting, to say the least, but it’s not impossible.
How Can More Used Electronics Be Saved From Landfills?
Now that the need for e-waste solutions is apparent, dedicated waste reduction policies, recycling resources, and salvage systems need to follow. Interrupting the flow from the end-of-use to the landfill is one of the more pressing needs.
This can be helped with more e-waste drop-off and collection sites and consumer education efforts that inform people of options to repair, refurbish, or donate electronics when they want or need an upgrade.
Dedicated e-waste recycling systems can be implemented similarly to paper, plastic, metal, and glass recycling resources that are standard in many areas.
Collecting e-waste is essential, but it is just the first step. A large-scale method of safely salvaging and separating parts for reuse in new electronics will also be a requirement.
Conventional e-waste salvaging is slow and expensive, but technology could change that. Although higher-speed electronics recycling methods are still experimental, progress has been made with methods that quickly recover rare earth elements and other valuable parts of e-waste.
But even with a standardized e-waste recycling infrastructure, electronics companies will also need to do their part by developing and manufacturing products with foresight. This will require making products from materials that are easier to recycle and that are generally more conducive to repair, disassembly, refurbishment, and salvage.