Toxic Tech: Environmental Risks From Old Electronics

Take a look around. Within arm’s reach, you likely have several electronic gadgets that did not exist five, 10 or 20 years ago. Cell phones, tablets, laptops and flat screen televisions are everyday, commonplace items – devices that most of us have determined we can’t live without. Now think about how many TVs and cell phones that you, your family and your company have discarded in the last several years. What did you do with the old ones?

If you don’t have a good answer, you are not alone. Each year, millions of tons of electronics are introduced into the United States’ waste stream – an alarming trend that is compounded by the rapid increase in technological innovation and unprecedented consumer demand for the newest electronic products. What to do with electronic waste is a relatively recent issue, one that affects not only consumers, but corporations and communities across the globe.

The e-recycling industry is undergoing a big transformation. Manufacturers and scientists are continually working to develop the technology needed to safely recycle electronics. There is a huge legacy of backlit LCDs and old cathode ray tube video devices that are difficult to disassemble safely and recycle. The biggest problem with throwing away end-of-life electronics is not only that they pile up in landfills and are shipped overseas to rot, but most electronics are filled with toxins such as mercury, lead and cadmium.

Many discarded LCD and flat panel screens are classified as hazardous waste, and rampant substandard recycling processes are unsafe and creating a global crisis. Pollution from electronics has completely altered the landscape of some African cities while many products are processed with 16th century methods, and the practice of harvesting e-waste for resale has led to serious health risks for many in the developing world.

One challenge for the industry is the difficulty of getting accurate numbers and grasping the real quantities of end-of-life electronics around the world. Whole warehouses in the U.S. are filled with stacks and stacks of CRT monitors that no one knows quite what to do with. India is now the next biggest international dumping ground, serving as the final resting place for millions of tons of old tech objects, many of which still contain personal or sensitive corporate information. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans alone get rid of 47.4 million computers, 27.2 million televisions and 141 million mobile devices annually, and those numbers are expected to rise.

The good news is that while the electronics recycling movement began very slowly, more and more lawmakers, business leaders and consumers are now taking note. In the 1990s, I was an advocate for establishing guidelines and industry standards for electronics recycling, which eventually materialized in the late 2000s as the e-Steward and R2 certifications endorsed by the EPA. They are focused on environmental safety and protection for workers who otherwise would be exposed to toxins while disassembling hazardous electronic components. While there is still a long way to go, these initiatives represent a significant step forward.

As heaps of electronics pile up globally, sustainable processes that can keep pace with innovation and stem the flow into landfills are needed more every day. We won’t solve the growing e-waste crisis overnight, however there are several ways that you and your company can help right now:

Use an e-Stewards or R2 certified recycler. These guidelines were developed by concerned stakeholders and require multiple and ongoing audits of electronics recycling practices in order to get and remain certified. The EPA supports these standards, but I recommend taking your diligence a step further.

Follow the truck. Your company’s brand and reputation are crucial, and are tied to where the truck goes. You do not want your company’s electronics – many of which contain sensitive information – to end up in a landfill or be liable for contributing to unsafe environmental practices. You should be able to answer this question: Where did my end-of-life electronics go?

Spend money the right way. It doesn’t cost much (or any) more to handle your electronics recycling in the right way, and you most certainly cannot afford to do it wrong.

As businesses, corporations and individuals recognize the growing e-waste problem, we will continue to gain more traction as an industry. Currently the most stringent and advanced electronics recycling operations and studies are happening in Europe, but the trend is spreading. By increasing awareness, utilizing better technology and building a strong e-recycling infrastructure, we can make a big impact on handling our electronics consumption and preserving our environment.