The Electronic Waste Race

trash stream from electronicsOver the past two decades the evolution of consumer electronics have cause massive amounts of information to migrate from the physical world of paper into the digital network of electrons. Throughout that time increases in efficiency and capability have shrunk the physical size of computers while expanded the capacity for information and exponentially increased speed to move it back and forth. The same progression, however, has led to a new, complex and rapidly growing waste stream that we know relatively little about. At the same time, the lifecycle of our paper products has not been idle. Steadily improving forestry practices, more efficient production methods and vast improvements in recycling make paper a much greener option than it was years ago. More and more, we need to consistently reevaluate which medium is offering us the most sustainable option.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by FOX News on the topic of paper and digital, and its relationship to e-waste. What was aired was a bit of an abridged version that helped prime a much larger conversation.

The Rise of the Digital World

Electronics have grown beyond the role of an expected home appliance to become ingrained in our daily cultural norms. In 2012 manufacturers sold hundreds of millions of consumer electronic devices to retailers, representing a $204 billion industry. We have reached a point where the absence of daily, if not hourly, access to electronics could cause rippling effects through American society where the average citizen will keep a computer for less than three years and a cell phone for less than twenty four months. Though the use of electronics bears a series of environmental costs on its own (see the Material Side of Digital) the part of the lifecycle we currently are the least proficient handling is the obsolescence caused by the speed of industry evolution, ultimately turning these “essential” devices into waste.

african ewaste dumpingAt around 2.5 million tons a year, e-waste is relatively small for a country that produces over 250 tons of municipal waste. Though it is the smallest waste stream, it is also the fastest growing and we have little evidence that it’s a trend that is going to change anytime soon. It’s also not a waste stream that we deal with ourselves. The EPA estimates that 80% of e-waste is exported outside of this country with most of it going to either China, India or Pakistan. Exporting these kinds of risks represents not only environmental impacts, but cultural impacts on societies where regulations on work environments, compensation and disposal can be lax or nonexistent. The process begs the question of what happens to what is left over after harvesting precious metals from our e-trash (electronics can contain gold, silver, tin, nickel and palladium). Sometimes it is put in the ground (which we outlaw in places in this country), sometimes it is left in big piles and worse yet, sometimes it is burned–probably the worst environmental option. In all cases, as users and producers we need to become more cognisant of how our cultural norms affect the planet and the rest of its occupants.

It is also important to remember that most of the electronics entering the waste stream are not the iPhones and flat screen TVs, but the technology we began retiring years ago–particularly cathode ray tubes, or CRTs. It is estimated that CRTs comprise 47% of all electronics currently ready for end-of-life management. These glass components were the key to televisions and computer monitors before the birth of LCD flat screens. The problem is that they contain (among other things) notable amounts of lead, which means they cannot be burned or discarded into regular landfills.


This underscores why e-waste presents such a challenge for management towards recycling and repurposing. Compared to paper, e-waste comes off as the delinquent of the recycling industry. When it comes to paper, America has gotten pretty good at recycling. Over 60% of the paper waste that we create gets recycled but that has taken time. We have had decades to practice and as late as 2000 we only recycled around 43% of our paper. The things we recycle well (paper, copper, structural steel, aluminum) are also essentially commodity streams. Separating an aluminum can from the trash has done a good portion of the work.

Electronics, on the other hand, are combinations of very different materials that are highly integrated including heavy metals, plastic and glass. Pulling a cell phone out of the trash is only the beginning of trying to break it down into separate resource components. At present, electronics reclaiming efforts is all too often focused on precious metals with value enough to promote their extraction, but the truth is that we have the technological capacity to recycle virtually all of our electronic waste.

At a certain point in the not-too-distant future, our reliance on electronics could lead us beyond financial return as incentives for recycling and into issues of security. Despite the fact that Americans purchase the most electronics the components necessary for producing them are often not found locally. Key materials have a growing tendency to come from Asia, Africa and South America–a fact that electric cars are becoming acutely aware of given the foreign material needs for lithium-ion batteries. Who is to say what are trade relations will be with these countries ten years from now? Twenty years from now? By reclaiming and internalizing materials streams we are promoting not only national security, but economic security as well. The EPA estimates that for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Add that all up at today’s prices and it’s about $2.9 million.

Striving for Solutions

One of the questions I was asked by the interviewer was: “Who should ultimately be responsible for taking care of e-waste? The government? Manufacturers? Consumers?”

As the video showed, my first response was that “I think the easy answer is ‘everybody’,” but what did not make the clip was, “and each of those three groups can be doing things that makes it easier for the other two to participate.” No one group can shoulder the entire burden in order for the system to work. The government is well placed to manage oversight and enforcement while facilitating the coordination of collection efforts. Aside from proactively separating their trash, consumers play a key role in their ability to leverage their buying power by purchasing products with recycled content. While legislation may cause the marketplace to shift slowly, nothing moves it faster than consumer demand.

At this point, I think that manufacturers actually have the most important role which is designing for recycling–designing products to come apart. Right now most of our zippy gadgets are designed to look sleek and attractive, but not necessarily be easy to dismantle, which can make it difficult to try and recycle their parts. Resource reuse has to be a priority that begins where the product begins: at the design and engineering process. By designing for an economy of reuse manufacturers can build success into the products we use.

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