The Wasted Years: ‘Fixable’ E-Waste Issue Continues to Be a Global Problem


Our appetite for electronics is creating a worldwide problem of excessive e-waste.

A recent NPR interview with Derek Markham of Treehugger focused on a growing global problem: electronic waste, or e-waste. The EPA estimates it’s more than 2.5 million tons just in the U.S. each year.

According to Markham, while Americans buy hundreds of millions of new cell phones each year, only a tiny fraction of used ones are properly recycled—the EPA estimates fewer than 10 percent. And with an average replacement/upgrade rate of just 18 months, along with fewer and fewer land lines in homes, the number of “trashed” cell phones are only going to increase.

There are several causes for concern: first, cell phones (and other electronics) contain precious metals that, while the device may no longer be functional, could have a life elsewhere if properly recycled and reused. This practice decreases our mining impact on the land, and can help reduce the risks for mineworkers (the famous 33 Chilean miners trapped for more than 60 days underground were mining copper, which is used in a number of electronic devices).

Another cause for concern over the improper disposal of electronics is the number of hazardous toxic substances they contain. Markham says they can contain lead, dioxins, mercury, cadmium, plastics and fire retardants. And “finding appropriate end-of-life solutions for these products is an important part of the sustainability puzzle.”

Even best corporate efforts to encourage recycling are failing to properly dispose of the devices’ parts, in fact, many are just making it someone else’s problem, “an estimated 50-80% of collected electronics end up getting exported to developing nations,” says Markham. Many of these countries willing to receive our trash also have less strict regulations on some of the materials of concern found within the devices, putting their citizens at risk when exposed.

Annie Leonard’s powerful “Story of Electronics” video highlights the situation incredibly well: corporations continue to succeed in selling us more and more new stuff we don’t necessarily need, while failing to properly dispose of waste, old devices, or clean up the manufacturing processes.

Even Apple—the (perceived) antithesis of cheap and faulty devices—is contributing in a large way to the problem. (Just ask Siri…or someone who has the newer iPhone model why it’s soooo much better than your iPhone 3.) According to TechCrunch, Apple’s move away from the 30-pin iPod port could create a huge pile of useless but completely functional electronics, “That’s 45 million devices in essentially perfect working order that will be partially obsoleted by this move.”

Some local recycling centers are accommodating e-waste now to tackle the issue. The EPA has a comprehensive list. And any rudimentary Google search can help direct you towards an e-cycling facility.

But that’s only one step in proper e-cycling. Markham says that the fact that many of the e-waste locations require consumers to bring their e-waste there is a big turn-off. People simply don’t have the time to drive across town to drop off a cell phone. It’s a reasonable frustration, but not necessarily a justifiable one. Consumers can look online for e-waste collectors who will pick up. Or, you could start a neighborhood collection and take turns dropping off your e-waste monthly.

When researching e-waste facilities, ask questions. Ask for references. Find out what they do with the products—particularly ask if they ship any used devices to other parts of the world.

Of course, the simplest way to handle e-waste is to make less of it. While it’s tempting to get the newest video game console, mobile phone or computer, know that there are always going to be new devices coming out and it’s unreasonable to upgrade each and every time.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Alex E. Proimos

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.