Here’s what you should do with that drawer full of old gadgets

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 these same devices also need to be replaced at almost the same speed as new technology emerges. .

The result of this so-called planned obsolescence, coupled with a limited number of options for repairing older devices over the years, is an e-waste tsunami, also known as e-waste. And the fallout that comes with it extends far beyond the headache of figuring out what to do with the clutter hidden inside your home.

“Planned obsolescence only makes things worse. People now expect to get a new computer every three or four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a body Seattle-based e-waste control group. “It is a mountain that continues to grow”.

The most recent UN data indicates that the world generated a staggering 53.6 tons of e-waste in 2019, of which only 17.4% was recycled. The burden and damage of e-waste often falls on those living in developing countries. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that “an undetermined amount of used electronics is being shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that do not have the ability to refuse imports or handle these materials appropriately.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that the increasing disposal and treatment of electronic waste can cause a range of “adverse health impacts on children,” including changes in lung function, DNA damage and increased risk of certain chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease later in life.

In addition, there are more than 18 million children and adolescents “actively involved” in the informal e-waste processing industry, the WHO warned. Children and adolescents are often used to sift through mountains of electronic waste for precious materials such as copper and gold “because their little hands are more skilled than those of adults,” the WHO said.

The e-waste issue is “all about global environmental justice,” Puckett said. “It’s about preventing rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technologies on developing countries.”

A man sits in front of electronic waste or electronic waste from computers in a workshop in New Delhi, India in July 2020.

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 relocated.

EU officials last month passed a new law requiring all phones and electronics to use a brand-independent standard charger, with the potential to limit the number of different cables the average consumer must own. Three progressive American lawmakers in a letter urged the United States to follow suit.

The sens. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said the new EU policy “has the potential to significantly reduce e-waste and help consumers who are tired of having to rummage through trash drawers full of tangled chargers to find a compatible one. or buy a new one, “in a letter addressed to the United States Secretary of Commerce. Senators alluded to the bipartisan hot topic of “tackling powerful tech companies” in the interests of consumers and the environment.

For now, however, e-waste regulation exists mainly at the state level and there are few of them signs of federal policy progress in the near future. In its absence, the burden continues to fall on consumers – and businesses – to take the initiative and find better ways to tackle old electronics.

What consumers and businesses can do about it

When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he was to understand what to do with hundreds of outdated business computers. Now, as executive director of the non-profit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group that seeks to address the e-waste crisis by strengthening cooperation between government, the private sector and consumers.

“E-waste is the result of failure to plan the product throughout its life cycle,” said Dehmey. “We’re just reacting to a problem we created years ago. So if we’re going to tackle this, we have to think about these things on the front end: what are we designing and what we as consumers are buying too.”

To do this, SERI has introduced and oversees its own e-waste recycling certification standards that ensure that facilities properly dispose of e-waste. It also hosts events for businesses and other stakeholders, and engages in advocacy activities to lobby businesses and governments to adopt more sustainable approaches to electronics development.

“We have to find ways to use it [an electronic device] longer, repair it, reuse it, “said Dehmey, stressing that this will require changes in mentality from both consumers and companies.

There has been some reason for optimism on this front in recent months. The rise in e-waste has led to increased pressure on manufacturers to ease restrictions on fasteners for individuals and independent repair shops in a push known as the “right to repair” movement. President Joe Biden last year passed an executive order ordering the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules requiring companies to allow do-it-yourself repairs, and the FTC vowed to “eradicate” restrictions on illegal repairs.
Now, a handful of tech companies have launched initiatives to help fix old gadgets. Earlier this year, Apple and Samsung launched their own self-service repair shops, offering parts for users looking for DIY solutions for their smartphones. Google’s promised parts for the Pixel phone repair will be available to the public later this year.
A sea of ​​e-waste stacked over six feet high covers the landscape of Westmoreland Cleanways and Recycling, in Unity, Pennsylvania on Friday, March 24, 2017.

In recent years, various coalitions have also emerged to offer consumers the ability to dispose of their devices responsibly. Puckett helped launch the e-Stewards e-waste recycling initiative, for example, which certifies and verifies electronics recyclers to make sure they are disposing of e-waste properly using “very strict standards.”

With this tool, consumers can search for nearby recycling centers. SERI also offers an online tool to find a certified recycling center.

Jeff Seibert, the main provocateur (yes, that’s his real title) at SERI, also recommends consumers check with their local council if they have a designated e-waste recycling plan. A handful of US retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that allow consumers to take their e-waste for recycling in the absence of larger infrastructure. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer free credit or laundering in exchange for trading used gadgets.

Before choosing to donate or recycle used electronics, the EPA recommends that you consider upgrading a computer’s hardware or software instead of purchasing a brand new product. If you decide to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to remove 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 a year. For every million cell phones that are 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.

In addition to these options, Seibert simply invites consumers to start thinking about electronics as we think about cars: we don’t destroy our vehicles when we need new tires or if the windshield breaks.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we have to give them the resources to be able to do that, and that’s still work in progress.”

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