The Circle of Tech – Build a Sustainable Life Cycle for Electronics

As newer and better electronics continue to hit the market, the question of what to do with the old ones is crucial. In this third of a three-part series, electronics recycling expert Joseph Yob explores how e-recycling processes can preserve the environment, protect your sensitive data, and utilize sustainable green technology.

We are living in a time of rapid and unprecedented technological innovation. Individuals carry more personal electronics than ever, and the entire social, economic and cultural landscape of our lives is entwined with computers, mobile phones, tablets and electronic devices. This has given rise to a problem without a clear solution: As consumers, how do we satisfy our craving for new technology without turning the planet into a wasteland of old electronics?

Schoolchildren are taught the principles of the circle of life at an early age. This concept can and should be applied to technology as well – by designing electronics through their lifespan and planning for recycling and re-use, waste can be reduced or eliminated altogether. Today, most electronics are designed for immediate use, without consideration for recycling when the next version comes along.

The problem with discarding electronics goes deeper than a landfill – it places sensitive information from hard drives at risk, and buries valuable rare earth elements that are needed to make the next electronic product. While advanced recycling technology such as the BLUBLOX utilized by my company, 3S International, has the ability to process, sort, and extract rare earth elements, most electronic products are not designed for streamlined reuse.

As the name suggests, rare earth elements are not easy to come by, and the reckless disposal of them places great stress on uncovering new materials and importing elements from overseas. Developing a “circle of tech” offers practical opportunities: There are currently more rare earth elements contained in U.S. electronics above ground than there are in China below ground.

The best way to manage this opportunity is to get manufacturers and recyclers to work together to develop products and processes that focus on the electronic lifespan of “cradle to cradle” rather than “cradle to grave.” The idea is to close the loop and create products that transfer seamlessly through their lifespan and end-of-life process. By designing products that can continually be recycled and reused, we can aspire to end waste entirely. Two U.S. initiatives are now making strides – Design for Recycling and Design for the Environment (DfE). These programs – managed by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively – encourage manufacturers and businesses to utilize safer and more efficient product designs.

Meanwhile, e-recyclers aspire to earn e-Stewards and R2 certifications. These guidelines are supported by the EPA and are focused on environmental safety and protection for workers who otherwise would be exposed to toxins while disassembling hazardous electronic components. They require multiple and ongoing audits of e-recycling practices to get and remain certified.

While it may seem as though corporate decisions and the mechanics of big electronic manufacturing are far removed from everyday business leaders and individuals, the power to enact big change rests with the consumer. Everyone can do his or her part to help.

Power of the people. Money moves business, and the power to guide change rests with the consumer. By making wise purchasing choices and spending – or not spending – on certain products, you can make your voice heard. This is especially true if you are doing a large amount of purchasing for a business or office. Consumers determine the laws of supply and demand, and it is up to individuals to demand recyclable products. This demand will force the industry to create a new supply.

Make informed decisions. When deciding which new phone, tablet or computer to purchase, it is important to do your research. Everyone wants a high-quality product with a great value, but this is an opportunity to take things a step further. Look for DfE approved products and those that are made from recycled materials. Because people are busy and have many demands on their time, it is important to remind them that there are responsible products out there.

Close the loop. Find an electronics processor in your community and start an e-recycling program at your office or school. Follow the truck to make sure that end-of-life electronics are completely processed – not resold or exported overseas. Closing the e-recycling loop will protect your sensitive data, your brand, and the environment.

When it makes not just ecological but economic sense, manufacturers will make products with a smaller environmental footprint that are designed to be recycled. By making a responsible decision when purchasing new electronics – and disposing of end-of-life electronics – consumers can participate in the conversation and encourage manufacturers to improve their processes. Change may be slow, but eventually we will have a great system and responsible circle of tech.

First and second parts of Yob’s electronic recycling series are at: