By John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO, Electronic Recyclers International
Electronic waste, also known as “e-waste,” is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with tens of millions of tons of devices, gadgets and appliances being thrown out on a yearly basis. Spurred by increasing consumer demand for the newest technologies – be they tablets, smart watches, laptops, cell phones, etc. – and the shortening life spans of these various devices, e-waste is unsurprisingly piling up in landfills both domestically and abroad at an alarming rate.
The rising e-waste crisis has prompted a growing number of individuals to ask: What are consumers to do with their electronic devices once they’ve broken down or been rendered obsolete? Should they shove them in the back of a closet? Or do they throw them out with the trash? What is the responsible thing to do?
The simple answer: Consumers should – and must - recycle them. Our electronic devices contain highly valuable metals. In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for every 1 million cell phones recycled, we recoup 5,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium. And that’s only cell phones. Unfortunately, more often than not, our electronic devices do not even get a second life in the burgeoning circular economy. Instead, they are sent to landfills or exported, oftentimes illegally.
A recent study from the United Nations reported 41.8 million tons of electronic waste were discarded in 2014, with up to 90 percent of this figure estimated to be illegally traded, exported or dumped - sometimes domestically. These practices put your security, the environment and local communities at risk.
The careless disposal of electronics endangers the data security and privacy of consumers. When electronic devices are thrown into landfills or exported illegally, the opportunities for hackers to obtain sensitive information, including credit card, Social Security and bank account numbers, only increases. What is done next with this information consumers typically only find out about once it’s too late.
E-waste, particularly when irresponsibly disposed of, is also a health threat. Electronics contain numerous toxins, such as cadmium, mercury and lead, that when tossed in a landfill can leach into the ground, contaminating water sources and threatening communities as well as endangering the health of workers when improperly handled.
Such dangers underline the importance of adopting responsible recycling practices to best safeguard our personal and national digital security and the health of our environment and communities. The challenge we face, then, as an industry and as a society is how to reach consumers to remedy this lack of awareness, increase recycling rates nationwide and engage every organization, individual and business in the circular economy.
This begins with education. It begins with empowering consumers to take charge of their current and future electronic waste. Our most powerful allies in this mission are our local governments – both city and state - manufacturers and retailers, i.e. the entities that play a role in the lifespan of our devices, from sourcing to end-of-life. Through partnering with recyclers, government agencies, manufacturers and retailers can not only disseminate information on green electronics but also create programs that make recycling electronic devices as easy and straightforward as purchasing them.
Best Buy and Staples are two excellent examples of what retailers can do to help consumers recycle their e-waste with ease. This includes offering buy-back and mail-in programs, as well as collection events. As a manufacturer, Dell has prioritized closing the loop, partnering with Goodwill to offer free e-waste drop-off to consumers and setting new standards for the amount of recycled plastic that must be used at minimum in new electronic devices.
An increasing number of local governments are also taking notice of the e-waste littering their landfills. New York City’s e-cycle NYC program is a successful example of how cities can tackle this issue. Electronic Recyclers International's partnership with e-cycleNYC has provided more than 1 million NYC residents with e-waste pick-up and recycling - at no charge to taxpayers. This type of program and its ongoing success, in conjunction with New York City’s recently passed law that bans the disposal of electronic devices in the trash, serves as a workable model for cities globally seeking to fight the rapidly growing e-waste stream and the threat it poses to residents’ security and the environment.
But consumers do not need to wait for businesses or local governments before taking action. One of the easiest and most effective steps consumers can take is to focus on their current devices’ end-of-life. Once an electronic device breaks, is upgraded or otherwise rendered obsolete, consumers can lessen, if not eradicate, the environmental and data risk posed by improper disposal of these devices by partnering with electronic recyclers that are dual-certified by e-Stewards and R2.
The Basel Action Network’s (BAN’s) e-Stewards Standard is an accredited, third-party audited certification program supported by the EPA and endorsed by Greenpeace USA, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and 68 other environmental organizations. Established in 2009, the e-Stewards Standard calls for certified members to halt the export of hazardous e-waste and the illegal dumping of such waste in landfills or incinerators. The R2 certification, which was introduced in 2008, outlines the general principles and specific practices electronic recyclers must meet and follow in regards to environmental, worker health and safety and security, as well as for any electronics exported for refurbishment and recycling. Both of these standards maintain strict data security standards to ensure sensitive information and privacy is safeguarded.
By understanding these certifications, businesses and consumers can take greater control of the end-of-life processes for their own devices, protect their data security and prevent environmental harm of the local and global community, signaling to larger entities that it is time for everyone to be held to the highest of standards.
Anything else is unacceptable.
John Shegerian is Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), the nation’s leading recycler of electronic waste and the world's largest cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company. ERI is e-Stewards and R2-certified to de-manufacture and recycle every type of electronic waste in an environmentally friendly manner. ERI processes more than 275 million pounds of electronic waste annually at eight locations, serving every zip code in the United States. For more information about e-waste recycling and ERI, call 1-800-ERI-DIRECT or visit www.electronicrecyclers.com.