Decades of pressure from the tech industry to “innovate or die” has led to a long list of useful and flashy home tech products, but many of those same devices also need to be replaced at much the same rapid pace as new technologies emerge. .
“Planned obsolescence only makes things worse. People now expect to have a new computer every three or four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog. band. “It’s a mountain that keeps growing.”
Additionally, there are more than 18 million children and adolescents “actively engaged” in the informal e-waste industry, the WHO has warned. Children and teenagers are often used to scouring mountains of electronic waste in search of valuable materials such as copper and gold “because their little hands are more dexterous than those of adults”, the WHO said.
The e-waste issue is “a global environmental justice issue,” Puckett said. “It’s about preventing 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 outsourced.
Last month, EU officials approved a new law requiring all phones and electronic devices to use a brand-independent standard charger, with the potential to limit the number of different wires the average consumer needs to own. Three progressive US lawmakers in a letter urged the United States to follow suit.
For now, however, regulation regarding e-waste exists primarily at the state level and there is little signs that federal policy is moving forward in the near future. In its absence, it’s still up to consumers — and businesses — to step up and find better ways to deal with old electronics.
What consumers and businesses can do about it
When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he had know what to do with hundreds of outdated corporate computers. Today, as executive director of the non-profit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group trying to tackle the e-waste crisis by strengthening cooperation between government, the private sector and consumers.
“Electronic waste is the result of not planning the product through its life cycle,” Dehmey said. “We are simply reacting to a problem that we created years ago. And so, if we want to tackle this problem, we have to think about it from the start – what we design and what we as consumers buy too.”
“We need to find ways to use [an electronic device] longer, fix it, reuse it,” Dehmey said, noting that this will require a mindset shift from consumers and businesses.
Various coalitions have also sprung up in recent years to give consumers the option of disposing of their devices responsibly. Puckett helped launch the e-Stewards e-waste recycling initiative, for example, which certifies and audits electronics recyclers to ensure they dispose of e-waste properly 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 allow consumers to bring in electronic waste for recycling in the absence of a 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 a computer’s hardware or software instead of buying an entirely new product. If you decide to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to remove any batteries that may need to be recycled separately. The agency says recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in one year. For every million cell phones 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.
Outside of those options, Seibert is simply urging consumers to start thinking about electronics like we think about cars: We don’t throw away our vehicles when we need new tires or the windshield cracks.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we have to give them the resources to be able to do that, and it’s still a work in progress.”