Admittedly, I was slow to adopt recycling. It really took my children to convince me of the benefits to recycling, both environmental and financial. My town offers free pickup of recyclables, and with the contracted company providing “zero-sort” recycling it’s pretty simple. Everything that’s classified as “recyclable” gets tossed in a container and put at the end of my driveway every other Monday. Cardboard, cans, plastic jugs and glass jars are all collected and properly recycled. But what they won’t accept are electronics. That’s classified as “Electronic Waste”, and considered hazardous to the environment.
Devices considered “electronic waste” include monitors, computers, tablets, cell phones, printers and scanners. Computer peripherals such as chargers, keyboards, mice, and speakers or anything that attaches to a computer for external use is also classified as such. In addition televisions, stereos, video game consoles, telephones – anything with a circuit board or screen is included. In Maine, it’s illegal for a business to dispose of electronic waste in the trash. It must be recycled.
So why all the fuss about electronic waste? It’s just metal and plastic right? Actually, the components used in circuit boards, screens and batteries include a lengthy list of nasty chemicals and metals. Mercury, lead, and cadmium are just a few of the heavy metals, and flame retardant chemicals and plastics used in electronics are also a concern, particularly when incinerated. When improperly disposed of, these chemicals can damage the environment in serious ways.
With technology accelerating at its current pace, the churn of electronic devices represents an increasing percentage of disposed electronic goods. In 2012, the US generated over 3.2 million tons of electronic waste, but less than 30% was recycled. The rest ended up in landfills or incinerators. Think about the number of electronic devices you’ve replaced in the last few years, and multiply that by the number of users on our planet. That number is only going to increase as devices have shorter lifespans, become more plentiful and ingrained in daily life.
So how do we deal with all this Electronic Waste? First – BE SURE TO REMOVE YOUR DATA! Before disposing of computers, phones or anything with storage capabilities, have all data removed. For phones and handhelds like iPods, resetting the device to factory defaults is also recommended.
After removing your data, recycling is the next step. For a homeowner, school, non-profit or businesses with less than 100 employees, it’s free. That’s right, you are considered a “covered entity” which entitles you to free electronics recycling. There are local drop off locations that participate in Maine’s product stewardship for e-waste, which helps to cover the cost through manufacturer support. Some local drop off locations may charge a small fee – check with your local municipality for more information. A second option is through a waste disposal company. Many offer a program to pickup your unwanted devices and dispose of them properly, for a fee. Some companies even specialize in this area – and offer to remove your data and provide a certificate proving this was done (which may be a regulatory requirement, depending on the industry the equipment was used in).
Besides removing hazardous waste from our landfills, what other benefits come from electronics recycling? Gold. Silver. Copper. These precious metals are present in all electronics. Recycling a million cellphones will yield almost 50lbs of gold, not to mention the silver and copper. Plastics can be reused to manufacture lawn furniture, non-food containers or many other goods. Recycling is an inexpensive way to recover materials that can be reused in manufacturing new electronics. Recycling aluminum only uses 10% of what it takes to mine new aluminum. The same goes for other materials contained in electronics – it takes much less energy to obtain recycled materials than it does to manufacture new. Sometimes electronics can be reused. Cell phones and tablets, for example, might be used in whole or for parts.
If you are gifted a new tech gadget this year, think about properly disposing of your old device. It’s simple, free and good for the future of our children. For more information or to find a local recycling location, visit http://www.maine.gov/dep/waste/ewaste/