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. .
“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”.
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.”
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.
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When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he was to understand what to do with hundreds of outdated business computers.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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”