Shiny, sleek, stylish, a row of new laptops and phones roll off of the assembly line. We are buying the latest models, almost thoughtlessly. New models for phones, computers, TVs and other electronic devices are being released at an ever more rapid rate, allowing us to experience the benefits of higher speed, more functions, and better capabilities. Americans are changing cellphones every 18 months when the phones could last a good three years. What could be wrong about this trend? What is hidden beneath the stylish screens and within the sophisticated programming that rips people off?
The raw materials necessary to produce components for electronics are mined. Mining processes expose radioactive elements and metallic dust while generating tailings or toxic slurries of waste rock and liquid, which can contaminate groundwater and nearby streams. Mineral ores are more than 99% waste rock. For instance, high-grade copper ore is only 0.1% pure copper, and high-grade gold ore is only 0.01% pure gold. Mining also causes land subsidence (in underground mining), habitat loss and soil erosion. Mining often takes place in underdeveloped countries where safety and environmental regulations are lax, and workers are frequently exploited.
Electronic waste or e-waste is the byproduct of the upgrading and replacing products that require a battery or plug. Electronics contain high-quality plastics and valuable minerals such as copper, silver, palladium, and gold. It is estimated that the world's e-waste contains $55 billion of recoverable materials. There are also many toxic elements, such as mercury, lead, Col-tan, and cadmium, within the internal circuitry and batteries. Improper disposal leads to air and water pollution as well as safety hazards in the case of batteries. The United States generated about 6.3 million tons of electronic waste in 2017 and recycled about 40% of it. In 25 states, certain electronics are banned from landfill or incineration, and trash companies are not allowed to take them.
Planned obsolescence pays a significant role in the increase in e-waste generation. Planned obsolescence is designing a product to limit its useful lifespan. In the case of electronics, it can involve: reducing the lifespan of the hardware, making it harder or costlier to repair a device, offering continuous software updates, only supporting new software, and marketing the "necessity" to upgrade to a newer model. Software updates on a phone slow the device down as the updates take up space. Some manufacturers make their products harder to repair by not publishing repair manuals or designing products that are more difficult to take apart. In the cast of smartphones, companies have been attempting to use copyright law to prevent consumers from tearing down their devices to find out how they worked. Tech companies have even taken down repair manuals that customers made after taking apart their gadget. About 2/3 of laptop failures are due to hardware malfunction. Printer companies generate a larger profit margin on selling ink cartridges, so they make the printer stop when there is "low ink" and void warranties for trying to refill a cartridge yourself. All of these tactics are designed to make you buy more and spend more by wasting more.
To reduce e-waste, we need to start by changing our perception about having the latest model. If the product works perfectly fine and has all the functions we need, then why buy a new one? Is the new model significantly better than the last one? You also don't know how good or how crappy a new gadget will it has been around for a year or two and people have given reviews for them. If your current device does break or malfunction, check iFixit (for electronics like phones, tablets, laptops, etc.) or Parts Select (for appliances) for repair tutorials and replacement parts. When you do need to purchasing, first look into purchasing a refurbished one. Certified refurbished products will work almost as well as a new one. When buying a new device, consider the product's warranty, ability to be repaired (check iFixit's repairability score for smartphones, tablets, and laptops), storage capacity (for computers, phones, and tablets), and cost of recycling (in the case of TVs and monitors). These properties help you buy electronics that last longer and are more repairable.
Donating or trading in is the next option if your device is still working well and relatively new(usually less than five years old). Before you give, sell or trade in your mobile device or computer, make sure you delete your personal information and deactivate service for phones. For phones and tablets, use the factory reset option under settings. For computers, use Secure Empty Trash (Mac) or Eraser (Windows).
Finally, there is recycling. Recycling should mainly be for electronics that are obsolete or beyond repair. Repair and reuse should come before recycling since it takes less energy to repair than it does to covert electronics back into raw materials and remake them into new gadgets. Make sure that recycling company that you are using is third-party (R2 or E-Steward certified for safety and environmental compliance. Companies that are not third-party (R2 or E-Steward) accredited, run a high risk for sending electronics overseas to developing countries where they are dumped, burned or dismantled in an unsafe manner. Some electronics such as TVs and monitors will cost money to recycle because the value of material sales doesn't cover the cost of processing and handling. For instance, for CRT TVs and monitors, there is no resell market for leaded glass (in the screens), so it has to be sent to a deleading plant to be safely treated. Manufacturers and local governments are not always held responsible for subsidizing the cost of recycling these products. Check with your county for collection events or permanent drop-off locations. Some manufacturers have taken the initiative to sponsor mail-back recycling options for their products.
Here are some mail-in and drop off options that are R2 or E-Steward accredited and work nationwide.
Mail-in (free shipping)
HP brand products
LG, GoldStar or Zenith brand electronics: offers mail-in electronics recycling, packaging take-back, and drop-off locator
1. Best Buy: 2 item limit see site for accepted items list, also takes printer cartridges and loose rechargeable batteries
2. Call2Recycle: cell phones, rechargeable batteries ( Ni-Cd, Li-Ion, small lead-acid under 11lbs, Ni-MH, Ni-Zn) Tape battery terminals with clear tape
4. MRM: drop-off locator
5. Sony Drop-off and event locator, if not available, then mail back is provided
5. Staples: 7 item limit, see site for accepted items list; also takes printer cartridges and loose rechargeable batteries
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