For when you get a new [insert electronic device]
Getting new gadgets is always exciting. Whether it's a cell phone, an electric toothbrush, or even a blender, it's fun to learn all about the new features. But, what happens to the old ones? If it still works, maybe you resell it, or it goes to a friend, or Goodwill. Other times, it ends up in a drawer with all the old cords you keep around just in case (like that one to plug your old digital camera into your laptop - oh wait, you laptop doesn't have ports anymore… but you never know!). For all of the items that don't end up in either of those categories, many of them end up being thrown out and becoming e-waste.
As technology keeps improving and advancing at a lightning fast pace and electronics become harder to repair, the larger the amount of e-waste will become. So, what does that mean for us and the planet?
Well, a couple of things. E-waste can be both a precious resource and a dangerous source of pollution, depending on where it ends up and how it is processed. All of our precious electronic devices are full of special materials like copper and gold, but also some scarier metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury. They also release other toxics including flame retardants, PDBEs, PCBs, dioxins, PAHs, which are either added as they are produced or created as they are used.
If e-waste is recycled properly, it can be taken apart responsibly and the metals can be reclaimed and handled in a safe manner. But, if the items are thrown in the trash or recycled in informal ways (like by families halfway across the world who find them in dumps), they can become dangerous- for the person doing the recycling and for the environment.
E-waste has been associated with health risks including changes to thyroid function, fetal malformation, still birth, changes to DNA, reduced lung function, neurobehavioral changes, and premature birth (1,2). These health risks are worse for those who come into direct contact with the e-waste (like those collecting and recycling it for parts). But the worry goes beyond just that. As the e-waste sits in landfills, toxics also seep out from the items and collect in our soil, water and food (1,2,3,4). The effects are known to be worse for children because they are more sensitive and take in more compared to their body weight (little bodies breath in more oxygen and drink more water per pound than bigger bodies)(1,2,3).
So, what are some ways you can help reduce e-waste and ensure that what you do get rid of is processed safely?
1. Research trade in programs and get money for your old electronics.
Many companies and retailers, like Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Walmart, and Target will take back (or buy-back, even better!) old electronics. There are also independent buyback websites like GreenBuyBack, Gazelle, and BuyBackWorld that are also great options.
2. Recycle responsibly.
Many of those same trade in program will take broken electronics and responsibly recycle them. Other stores, like BestBuy, also offer recycling programs so they can appropriately dismantle the tech and reuse the relevant parts. You can find other certified electronics recyclers that meet specific standards to safely recycle and manage electronics through the Responsible Recycling ("R2") Standard by SERI and e-Stewards.
3. Look for charities seeking donations of old gadgets.
Just because it's not of use to you anymore doesn't mean it wouldn't be helpful for someone else. Charities often are grateful for old electronics that are still in working order like Computers with Causes or Cell Phones for Soldiers.
4. Fix what you already have.
It may sound old fashioned, but you'd be surprised what you can still fix instead of buying new. Think things like swapping out the battery in your smartphone, fixing laptop components, or going to an old fashioned repair shop for things like a vacuum cleaner or other appliances.
5. Think before you buy.
Instead of rushing to buy a new thing as soon as it is released, take a moment to consider it. Do you need it right now? Or if it's a specialty item you don't think you will use often (like a carpet cleaner or crockpot) see if you can rent one or borrow from a friend or neighbor. We aren't saying never get a new phone or don't buy that instant pot you have been eyeing and thinking about for months now. We're just advocating for thinking about it first.