01/12/19
Brice Bunner
Environmental

Handling e-waste sustainably can secure data while saving lives

    

Image ©: Kevin Mcelvaney via WiredIf you’re environmentally conscious, you may take part in electronic recycling collection events throughout the year, but if you are too casual about it, that could be the worst thing you do with your retired electronics. The typical community electronics collection drive is held at the local city service building; everyone dropping off their electronics expecting green goodness, when the reality is, behind the scenes, a moral crime is happening.

The economics of e-waste recycling

Have you ever wondered why we can purchase a device that allows us to access tens of millions of sites, sounds, and wonders for comparatively little cost? Remember, the computing power of what we have today is quadruple that of what sent men into space a few decades ago. It may not have occurred to you, since it happened so slowly over time, but what we pay for these devices is ludicrously low compared to what they are really worth.

How can this be? Well, the single biggest reason we aren’t paying what we should for our devices is that we are externalizing the costs to manufacture and to recycle them. It costs money to recycle electronic devices—a lot of money; it’s dangerous work, and the rewards are currently too pricey to be worth it. After all, when you can pay laborers pennies on the dollar to mine rare minerals in war-torn countries, why pay top dollar for reclaimed materials from recycled devices?

The economics of electronic devices simply doesn’t add up without additional compensation being made for recycling and sourcing from recycled devices. Compensation that needs to come from consumers.

That, unfortunately, is where we are with recycling electronic devices. We pay practically nothing for devices while the earth pays the price to manufacture them and an even higher price to recycle them. When you’re not thinking sustainably about your device drop off, you perpetuate that economy.

Poor recycling costs lives

Bad economics, while tragic, are not criminal. And they certainly don’t cost people their lives—at least not directly. So how does sustainable recycling save lives? It comes down to where the non-sustainably recycled devices end up.

Typically, when you take your devices to a non-e-Steward certified recycler, you are running the risk of having your device sent overseas to cheap labor markets for dismantling and destruction. This is cheaper for the recycler and it keeps America’s landfills free of toxic waste. Because, that’s what e-waste is: toxic.

The toxicity of electronic devices being dumped in waterways and farm land of poorer countries is poisoning the water tables, filling the sky with acrid smoke, and creating a dystopian landscape in more and more countries across the globe. It’s a hell of our own making that chokes the life out of the communities stained by it.

The irony of bad behavior

Not being sustainable in local electronics drives is the equivalent of using a bake sale to fund drug rings. Even if the collection event is for a good cause, the aftermath of what those devices do—or aren’t able to do—is where it becomes a moral crime.

How can we be okay with sending perfectly usable devices overseas to decimate the landscape when we have one or two communities in every city across America falling into the digital divide? It is 2019, folks; people in America need computers. It’s no longer a luxury.

Today you can’t search for a job, apply for insurance, track your taxes, or even go to school without a large-screen device. And bad recyclers are shredding and landfilling good end-of-life devices. Devices that, with a little work, could be perfectly suitable for inner-city schools, lifestyle assistance organizations, or special-needs facilities.

A light in the darkness

It can be overwhelming to think of the scores of screens, kilos of keyboards, and scads of circuit boards that our country is pushing into waste bins every day, but that can’t make us give up on trying to change this arrangement. Little shifts in behavior over time can make a big difference.

So, if you’re holding an electronics collection event for your business or community, partner with a sustainable recycler—preferably e-Steward certified (to know why that matters, go here). And, when collecting devices, always look to how they can be reused, rather than recycled. That simple shift in thinking is perhaps the best way to make a real change for our future.

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