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Common Roadblocks to Better E-Waste Recycling


By Kayla Matthews

As an individual, you’ve probably gone through your share of electronics. When a new phone model is announced, a tablet goes bad or it’s time to replace a desktop computer, you’re probably so excited about the new gadget that you overlook an important step: disposing of the old piece.

Because 25 states, covering 65 percent of the U.S. population, have passed e-waste recycling laws, it’s not as easy — or good for the environment — to simply throw the old electronic away. E-waste recycling is not only responsible, but it’s also likely mandatory.

But it’s not always so easy. In many cases, e-waste recycling requires time-consuming research on regulations and best practices. Find out more about e-waste recycling roadblocks and potential solutions below.

E-Waste facts and statistics

E-waste is no small problem. In fact, by 2016 the total global volume of e-waste generated by common consumerism is expected to be well over 93.5 million tons. This is an increase from 41.5 million tons in 2011 at a growth rate of 17.6 percent each year. It’s the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the United States.

In U.S. landfills, e-waste represents only 2 percent of the trash but accounts for over 70 percent of discarded toxic waste. Electronics that are considered the most hazardous include televisions, computer monitors and tablets with LCD monitors.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most of the e-waste in America is shipped to developing countries that may or may not have processing facilities. When handled incorrectly, because of the toxicity of the products, human health could be at stake. Harmful substances are released when e-waste is handled incorrectly, which exposes handlers to high levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and other contaminants.

Why has it come to this? What roadblocks prevent the proper recycling of e-waste domestically?

Cost is a critical factor

The cost of accepting e-waste for recycling is high. Because electronics must be disassembled, separated and categorized by material — glass, plastic, metals and hazardous chemicals — broken and cleaned, the process is less straightforward than it sounds from the outside.

While some private facilities can earn incentives for each pound of e-waste they turn in to larger facilities, it’s often not enough to cover expenses. Because of this, many facilities charge customers for e-waste that is to be recycled. In most cases, this makes them ineligible for the incentives. This creates a lose-lose situation that could be difficult to remedy.

Take-back programs present an alternative that allows consumers to recycle e-waste without burdening smaller, local recycling facilities. One well-known program is sponsored by Best Buy. In certain situations, the retailer takes back electronics in exchange for gift cards or, at the minimum, for free.

Toxicity of products

As mentioned above, electronics contain high concentrations of toxic materials. Employees at recycling centers, and the environment in general, can face major consequences when these materials are handled incorrectly.

This is not just a problem for developing countries. It’s also an issue at home. Last month, an electronics recycling company in Illinois received 26 health citations after failing to implement the proper controls and procedures, exposing employees to toxic materials.

While it’s a great initiative to aim to recycle one million laptops or to set another big goal, if the products are not recycled properly, major issues could arise. To combat this roadblock, the EPA has put together a set of guidelines for recycling e-waste and properly handling toxic materials. While implementation costs could be high, the benefits outweigh the risks.

Product designs create an overload

In the past, products were designed to be easily disassembled and repaired. If a screen or battery went awry, a consumer could simply replace the part instead of the entire electronic. This reduced the burden on landfills and kept e-waste to a minimum.

Today, however, products are designed to be more singular — when something goes wrong, the consumer is expected to replace the piece or upgrade to a newer version. The old piece becomes waste. This equates to 100 million cell phones, 41.1 million desktop and laptop computers and 20 million televisions that are replaced each year. Because only 13% of electronic waste is properly disposed of, the system becomes overloaded.

One possible solution? Creating products that are meant to be fixed, not replaced. Short of that, the problem will only continue to intensify.

While e-waste recycling is mandated by law, actually following the practice is not as easy as it sounds. Until the roadblocks above are remedied, the situation will become worse in the coming years.

Image by Tookapic

Kayla Matthews is a healthy living writer and blogger who writes for The Huffington Post and The Climate Group. Follow her on Facebook or at ProductivityTheory.com

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