Avoiding Harming the Environment with Electronic Waste

If one of your personal values is to minimize harm to the environment, it’s very important to understand the unique hazards of electronic waste. While not harming the environment may not necessarily be high on your list of concerns, perhaps it should be. It’s not only a matter for future generations, but it can cause short-term harm to your health and those you care about, due to leeching of toxic chemicals into the ground. If you care about your drinking water being safe, you should care about electronic waste, perhaps even more so than other types of environmental harm.

By electronics, we mean consumer goods you most likely buy and need to eventually discard, such as computers, laptops, monitors, televisions, cell phones and printers. How often do you replace these due to outdated technology? What happens to your old electronics, is it recycled or safely disposed of?

Approximately 60% of electronic waste (e-waste) ends up in landfills, with toxic metals leaching into the environment and potentially into the water supply. Avoiding this is one of the benefits of recycling computers and other electronics. Another hazard comes when electronic waste is incinerated, releasing heavy metals and carcinogens into the air.

Why is recycling the best option? It’s not only that it avoids leeching of toxic chemicals. It allows re-use of materials such as copper, silver, gold, plastic and aluminum. Such re-use avoids other types of environmental harm. Additionally, there can sometimes be shortages of these raw materials, which can drive up prices to you.

Recycling of electronics is a complex process that starts with you. Safe collection and transportation is the first step. Some neighborhoods have periodic pickup or drop off locations. They should not be collected alongside normal recyclable materials, never place them in regular recycle bins. Or find an online company to sell your electronics to.  There is a great list of resources at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

The next step after transportation is to separate the materials. Metals must be separated from plastics, and the different types of metals themselves separated. This will typically start with shredding the materials for easier separation. Non-recyclable materials must also be removed. Some metals can be separated using powerful magnets.

The final step is to take the respective materials and transport them to their respective locations for reuse as a raw material.

Also be sure to understand laws in your area. Many states in the U.S. have specific laws regarding e-waste recycling, and some ban it entirely from landfills.

Don’t overlook another method of recycling- giving working electronics to someone else that can use it, whether as a gift or through the re-sale market. Various internet sites exist to give away unneeded items locally.

We hope you will do your part in avoiding contaminating our water and air by avoiding electronic waste.  For more information, visit the EPA Sustainable Management of Electronics site.