Startling Facts on Electronic Waste

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Electronics are everywhere around us, and life in the 21st century is unimaginable without them. Computers, mobile phones, televisions, etc. are ubiquitous and have transformed the way the world works. However, like any technology, there are problems that need to be addressed, and electronic waste is one of the major one for the environment.

Electronic waste or e-waste grows at an exponential rate because the industry churns out new products at an ever faster rate. This renders old products useless. This is quite unlike the traditional machines that we use. A car, for instance, will not become obsolete even after a decade while a laptop might become so after just a couple of years. Thus the consumption of new electronics is indeed startling. We need to take note of where the old discarded electronics go in order to ensure they are disposed off in the right ways.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives some facts on e-waste. Some of the interesting ones are –

  • Over 112,000 computers (desktops and laptops combined) were discarded in 2007 in the US every single day.
  • 31.9 million units of computer monitors were discarded in 2007, including both CRT and flat panel screens.
  • The recycling rate of electronics in the US is a mere 14%. In comparison, over 75% of printed newspaper is recycled in the US. However, this is still better than plastics, which have a recycling rate of just about 7%.
  • The total e-waste generated in the world is anywhere between 20-50 million tons. The figures for a number of countries are hard to come by. The US accounts for over 3 million tons of e-waste.

However, the problem is only going to get worse. This is because, it is estimated that the developing world will triple its e-waste in the next 5-6 years alone. In addition, a lot of old electronics get stored at homes instead of being discarded immediately. In fact, according to a HP fact sheet 68% of consumers store used or unwanted computer equipment at their homes.

On the other hand, we keep consuming more and more electronics each year.

  • The US alone sees over 500 million units of consumer units bought each year.
  • The problem is not just with computers but with a number of other electronic equipment as well. For example, Gartner Inc. estimates 1.2 billion mobile phones sold all over the globe, with about 172 million of those being smartphones.

Electronics recycling is not very common, but it is a good idea. Not only does it save and protect the environment from toxins such as Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, etc. that are found in most of the electronics but it can also be profitable for companies and the industry as a whole. Glass, plastic, and a number of different metals can be recovered with the help of electronics recycling.

  • One metric ton of circuit boards can contain between 80 and 1,500 g of gold and between 160 and 210 kg of copper.
  • One ton of used mobile phones contains about 130 kg of copper, 3.5 kg of silver, 340 grams of gold and 140 grams of palladium, according to StEP.

Thus, there is immense scope, economic and environmental, for electronics recycling and hopefully we will see companies and consumers more enthusiastic about this issue in the future.

Photo: art_es_anna

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10 Comments

  1. The facts are indeed startling. At the same time, it is heartening to know that e-recycling industry has a huge potential for generating wealth and employment. Hope the idea will be tapped in a big way so that environment is saved while generating wealth out of it.

  2. I don’t believe that 75% of newsprint is recycled. We take two newspapers daily, and sorry to say we probably recycle only about 80%, and we are above average in awareness. On the ten square blocks or so around us, only we an our neighbor across the street pay for our little blue recycle containers, which are picked up weekly.

    I am also among the high percentage of people who have used computers. I don’t recycle them, because I have given, (and have definite plans to give) to kids I know who have no computer, whatsoever. I know many families who will be happy with our old Macs, which are in perfect working order. Why recycle when you can give them away to people who can use them? So I believe recycling is a bit overrated when it comes to usable electronics which are useful in an educational situation – it just takes time and effort to follow through on dealing with the issue.

  3. 112,000 – that’s quite something. I wonder how many of those still had sensitive information left on them? Something people don’t always consider is how easy it is to remove information from discarded laptops, and, unfortunately, how many people are willing to do so for nefarious means.

  4. Siddharth Kalla on

    @T Backman,

    It would mean you are slightly above the average. The recycling for newsprint is always higher than paper. Paper in all forms stands at a little more than 50% in the US and newsprint is about 75%. These are simple facts and statistics that you can easily dig up. A neat summary can be found here (though a little outdated): http://greennature.com/article2602.html

    It doesn’t make sense to say you can always reuse. Reusing has a limit – you cannot hope to use your computer for the next 100 years by passing it off to kids you know. You can perhaps extend the life-cycle by a few years, but what about disposal then? Recycling ends the product cycle and gives it a fresh start, so ultimately, even reusing has to end in recycling.

    @Jimmy G

    Yes, data security is a huge issue and unfortunately even large corporations fail to erase data properly before disposing their computers. I don’t know in the US, but there are organized industries around stealing data from discarded computers in several countries where such data is then traded online. Ordinary families seldom consider the consequences seriously.

  5. I was thinking about this and I was alarmed, now figuring out with your information scares me more but this is reality and we overlooked most things that we enjoy so much and leave our uncertainties away.

  6. Siddharth Kalla on

    Yes, the figures are alarming. People seldom know the scale of the problems that they unintentionally create. Technology always comes at a price.

  7. I think(hope) that the recycling industry grows. The main problem is getting the precious metals separated causes as much if not more of a threat to the environment as the e-waste itself. The copper extraction is easy if you have the patience. thanks for the info. I will visit often.

  8. We would all like to see the recycling rates rise, but there is an issue with the compromise in data security and the level of recycling that can be done. If you want to have the most environmentally and sometimes economically sound way to dispose of old computers then reusing them is probably the best option. However this posses is the most difficult problem for data protection. The most secure way for data protection is to have the hard drives shredded. This is not the most environmentally friendly way as the granules are not compatible with recycling processes. So there is a balance to be struck between the two.

  9. I do think recycling of electronics is getting better. In my opinion, it’s all about marketing. I market for http://www.urbanerecycling.com and it’s unbelievable how many business people throw computers in the dumpster. When they find out I will send someone to pick up their old electronics, they are thrilled. We would actually pay for some stuff, but they want to pay me for taking it off thier hands.

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