I wish I had a dollar for every pound of audio and video, computer, smartphone, tablet, peripheral and digital camera e-waste I’ve discarded over the years. Oh, and all those cables, power adaptors and earphones I’ve scrapped, too. I do it as responsibly as possible — trading in or giving away gear that still works and finding a recycling event for the rest. I don’t even want to think about how much I spent for all the obsolete gear that was once shiny and new.
Multiply my contribution times millions of people per year. The Environmental Protection Agency website says that in 2014, over 720 million new electronic products were sold and 3.36 million tons of used electronics were ready for end-of-life management in the U.S.
A 2019 World Economic Forum report said e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, reaching 50 million tons the year before. Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately, “and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions.”
Designing for Circularity — Closing the Loop is a column about designing electronics systems with re-use and recycling in mind; it is written by Michael Kirschner.
A 7-year-old chart from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition seemed to show a positive recycling trend at the time: 40% of the 3.1 million tons of e-waste generated in in the U.S. in 2013 was recycled, it said. The bad news was it was “unclear whether the large increase in the electronics recycling rate from 2012 to 2013 is due to an actual increase in recycling or the result of improved and expanded data.”
It’s also unclear what falls into the category “e-waste” in studies, but my trail of expired electronics over the years spans generations of chips and circuit boards. Besides smartphones I’ve traded in to wireless carriers, I’ve discarded obsolete cassette, CD, laserdisc and DVD players; stereo and AV receivers, loudspeakers, headphones; CRT and plasma TVs; desktops, laptops, monitors, printers, scanners, keyboards and surge-protecting power strips; fax machines and phones; e-readers, a DirecTV receiver and a WebTV — and then all the cables and remote controls required to make them work. That’s a jot of e-junk.
Electronics recycling laws are a state-by-state thing. Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws related to electronics recycling, says recycler ERI, whose website links consumers to their states’ e-disposal programs. My state, New York, uses the Producer Responsibility approach: Manufacturers pay for recycling costs, as it should be.
New York State pointed me to Staples and Best Buy as e-cyclers in my area, and a map showed plenty of locations where we could dump our electronics responsibly. When I clicked through, I found e-cycling is another way of life put on hold due to Covid-19. The recycling program has been “temporarily suspended” at Staples “to keep our customers and associates safe.” Best Buy’s appears to be up and running, according to a recorded message at my local store. I wasn’t able to get a live person to confirm that.
Among manufacturers, Apple and Samsung have taken leadership roles in e-cycling. Apple has committed to someday sourcing 100% recycled and renewable materials across all of its products and packaging. The company accepts unwanted Apple products in stores for recycling. Next time I want to upgrade an iPad — and it’s too old for a trade-in — I can take the tablet and chargers to an Apple store and let them handle the dirty work.
Samsung’s website directed me to Call2recycle, where I learned that all those dead alkaline batteries I’ve been saving can’t be recycled like rechargeable batteries, whose recycling is funded by device manufacturers. There’s currently no national stewardship solution to allow for free recycling of single-use batteries, “except in Vermont,” it says. Other states may charge a small fee for it, says the recycling company.
Rumor has it Apple will ship the next generation of iPhones without adapters or those starter earphones that everyone tosses to upgrade to better ones. If it’s true, that’s a money-saver for Apple, but I also see it as a good thing for the environment – if I can use my existing lightning cables and chargers. Otherwise, I’ll have to trash my existing chargers and cables and buy new ones on top of the pricey upgrade phone.
Apple has a tendency to force transitions to new technologies, leaving more collateral e-waste damage. I still lament the demise of the iPod and I had a few cute iPod mini music players along the way, which wound up at recycling events. I hate when I don’t upgrade fast enough to have any value left for a trade-in; that happened a couple of times with iPads.
I’m still smarting from when I bought an integrated amplifier with a 30-pin dock built into the top that allowed me to pop in my iPod, or a pre-2012 iPhone, as a direct source. The iPod is long gone, but the dock is still there, mocking me. I cringe when I see one of those old 30-pinner docks atop a hotel room’s clock radio. The industry was so young and innocent then, thinking the 30-pin connector would carry us from generation to generation.
My mind is on electronics cycling because I’m contemplating another audio migration, forced by a transitioning manufacturer. Then it’ll be out with the old, in with the new, as another generation of feeds and speeds enters the picture. That brings a whole other set of thoughts and aggravation for another day. Meanwhile, time to hunt down a place to recycle.