H2R in Action

Give, receive, recycle: Electronics recycling at the holidays

To many, the winter holidays bring a sense of joy, community, and gratitude. But it also inevitably brings something else—waste. According to the EPA, “The volume of household waste in the United States generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – about 1 million extra tons.” As we gear up to brave the crowds to search for the perfect gifts for our loved ones, let us make a pledge to consider one additional step: how are we going to dispose of the old items we leave behind when we replace them with the new?

Televisions, tablets, drones, virtual reality headsets, and countless other gadgets are just a few of the mountain of electronic gifts that are expected to be given this holiday season. In fact, more American consumers than ever before — 68%, or roughly 170 million people — plan to buy electronic gifts for themselves and their loved ones this holiday season. This is a lot of potential waste! But it’s also an exceptional opportunity to utilize our resources at hand in order to optimize the recovery and recycling of valuable materials.

Responsible electronic recycling, or e-recycling, is especially necessary today more than ever. As we swap our old gadgets out for their sleeker and newer counterparts, let us not forget that countless natural resources are necessary to make them work. In fact, over 80% of the elements in the periodic table can be found in our cell phones alone. Of these, there are both valuable and hazardous materials that can easily contaminate our water, soil, and even our bodies if not disposed of properly. 

To fully appreciate the value of properly disposing our electronics, it is important to understand the scope of the problem. The reality is that approximately 82% of electronic waste generated annually in the United States is not recycled. Of the 18% that is recycled and reused, approximately 50-80% is exported to developing countries as a reusable material; however, an increasing amount of the import is actually unable to be recycled and is thus discarded in a country that lacks facilities to safely dispose of the material. “Technological innovation coupled with planned product obsolescence has fostered a throwaway culture that has made electronic waste the fastest growing segment of the municipal waste stream in the United States.”
Not to get despondent; there are a few easy ways to quickly determine what to do with your old toys. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed some sort of e-recycling law(s) aimed at providing convenient collection sites in order to properly manage electronic waste—look to see if there is electronic recycling near you. Even if your state doesn’t have e-recycling legislation, many manufacturers and retail stores like Staples and Best Buy offer electronic take-back programs at little to no cost to consumers. Some even provide a haul away service for your large items!
Electronic take back programs launched in 2007, when Staples saw the need for responsible material management, and now many of your favorite retailers have followed suit.  If you elect to drop off your unwanted electronics at a manufacturer, make sure you do your homework to find out what is done with the materials after you have handed them over. Many of these programs aim to refurbish and resell your discarded electronics. When the item is not eligible for resale, companies like Staples and Best Buy partner with responsible electronic recycling experts to ensure the material is properly disposed. Programs like these only ship to developed nations with the established infrastructure capable of safely managing the hazardous materials found in our electronics.

If your old device is perfectly functionable, clear the memory and donate to local organizations, schools, or charities! The holidays are a time of spreading cheer and giving thanks, and is a great time to support local community and economy. Many computer donation programs are used to help educate children, those in poverty, the elderly, and the disabled. As if you need another incentive, many of these electronic donations are tax deductible, so in addition to helping others you can also receive a financial benefit.
The holidays are a time of giving. Let us give the gift of safety, health, and regard for the planet and the life it sustains. Spread the love, not the waste.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox
Project Associate

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