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Moving Mountains of E-Waste

October 04, 2019 Scott Evangelist

There is a dresser drawer in my father’s house. In my old room. In that drawer rests: an HP laptop from 2005, a GameBoy from the early 90’s, a GameBoy Advance from the late 90’s, three different Sony Walkman (two CD players, one cassette), and two old cell phones. I’m surprised the bottom of the drawer hasn’t fallen out. That laptop is a weighty beast

I don’t think I’m the only person with a drawer full of old electronics. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most people do. Maybe it’s not a drawer. It could be a box, or space in a closet, under a bed, or in the attic/basement. And in those spaces there is treasure. Not in the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” kind of way. In a “there’s actually precious metals in that pile of old electronics” kind of way. Gold, silver, copper and palladium are commonly found in anything with a circuit board. And if you, like me, have an old computer gathering dust there may be a trove of personal information stored on that old hard drive. Bank accounts, credit card numbers, social security numbers, photos, videos; you really need to make sure you dispose of those devices properly. Precious metals and batteries can be toxic to the environment, and all that personal data can be toxic to your credit score, or social life.

But how does one properly dispose of a computer? Or a cell phone? Or a GameBoy? Most people don’t know. I didn’t know until I did a bit of research. Many people just throw their smaller old electronics away. According to the United Nations, the Americas combined created 11.7Mt (million tonnes) of e-waste in 2014. And, apparently, only about 12% of that waste in the US and Canada was disposed of/recycled by municipalities, retailers, and commercial pick-up services. That leaves quite a large amount of e-waste to be picked up by private collection companies (who may or may not recycle them properly), or mixed into regular trash collection.

When e-waste is simply thrown away it will find its way to a local trash facility and then most likely to a dump. At the dump, it will sit in a mountain of garbage, exposed to the elements and exposing the elements to it, as well. Batteries and metals will leach into the ground—ruining the soil and corroding its way into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes. Thus, polluting the water and making it unusable for animals and humans alike. Or, it heads to an incinerator where it will be burned, creating greenhouse gasses and possibly dioxins. Dioxins are highly toxic chemical compounds that can be released into the environment when plastic is burned at low temperatures (under 1,500°F). Dioxins attach to fatty tissue in the body and can lead to several forms of cancer after chronic exposure.

“Precious metals and batteries can be toxic to the environment, and all that personal data can be toxic to your credit score, or social life.”

Now, there are private collections services that will take your old tech away for you for a fee or accept drop offs. Any tech in fair or better condition has a chance at being refurbished and resold. A great solution. Many reputable collectors will send what can’t be refurbished to specialized recycling centers. There the e-waste is broken down and separated by part and sent out for disposal and recycling—precious metals are pulled and sold for smelting.

However, at times, less scrupulous collectors will ship old tech overseas rather than take care of it properly on their own turf. Most waste that is shipped off continent, whether it be from North America, Europe, or Australia, ends up in dumps in China, India and Ghana. These countries have laws against importing e-waste, but they are hard to enforce. Many times, the shipments will come into port marked as used goods for resale and head straight to a landfill with minimal to no checks. In these landfills open fires burn plastic, display screens, metal components, and rubber, creating massive plumes of black smoke that blanket the communities around them. A layer of crystal, plastic ash covers nearby fruits and vegetables in fields and open air markets where people work and live. The people live in a cloud of dioxins and the risk of death from various cancers is a very real possibility.

So, it is imperative that we (especially in the US) that produce mountains of e-waste, recycle our old tech responsibly. It’s not very hard. Google it. There’s a good chance your city/county/state has a program in place for proper technology disposal. But there are also a few large retailers with easy and accessible recycling programs. Best Buy, Staples, and Office Depot/Max offer recycling for batteries, ink cartridges and other small appliances. Best Buy’s offerings are a bit more robust—they’ll take CRT TVs and monitors for a small fee. All four of the major cell phone carriers have some sort of buy-back and/or recycling program.

“And until Elon Musk colonizes Mars we’ve only got the one planet.”

Here in Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency website lists 264 sites that will collect used electronics for disposal. By law, all organizations that collect electronic devices for recycling must be registered with the state, presumably so that they can be monitored for their recycling habits. In addition, Minnesota state law requires manufacturers must annually register with the state (paying a fee) and collect and recycle “covered electronic devices” from consumers. According to 115A.1318 Subdivision 1, paragraph (b) of the Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act:

A manufacturer must annually recycle or arrange for the collection and recycling of an amount of covered electronic devices equal to the total weight of its video display devices sold to households during the preceding program year, multiplied by the proportion of sales of video display devices required to be recycled, as established by the agency under section 115A.1320, subdivision, paragraph (c).

The statute goes on to say that the manufacturer is required to find a recycler that complies with all applicable health, environmental, safety, and financial responsibility regulations. So, the state of Minnesota puts the onus on the manufacturer to give the consumer the opportunity to recycle responsibly. This makes it a bit easier for consumers in Minnesota to properly recycle their old tech. but it is not the case for all states.

Recently, Tech Dump, a Twin Cities-based e-waste recycling non-profit, reported that they had processed 20 million pounds of e-waste since their inception in 2011. They’ve opened a large, new facility in the Midway district of St. Paul as the mountains of e-waste are growing. Tech Dump expects to yield a record revenue of $3.3 million this year and are expanding their services. Read the article here. It goes to show Minnesota is putting in the effort, as Tech Dump is said to be the third largest e-waste collector by volume.

It’s important that everyone does their part because, if not, the problem will only get worse. There’s only going to be more technology and devices as we evolve as a society, not less. And until Elon Musk colonizes Mars we’ve only got the one planet. Let’s try not to poison it and ourselves in the process. Click this link to learn more about how to recycle and donate your used electronics.

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