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The Current State of E-Waste and Recycling

Moving on to newer and better smartphones, laptops, monitors and televisions after a few years is inevitable. Even if you opt to hold onto your smartphone or laptop for as long as you can, its integrated battery will eventually stop working, its hard drive will fail, or any other number of other things will happen to make it obsolete. All of these outmoded electronics and other electronic-based things — such as big appliances — eventually end up in one of two places: either a landfill or a recycling center.

Unfortunately, according to a 2016 report by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it is estimated that only 20 percent of electronics are getting recycled out of a staggering 45 million tons. That’s equivalent to nearly 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and it is only expected to rise as time goes on. The report estimates that the value of the raw materials used in the discarded electronics — materials such as nickel, cobalt, zinc, silver, copper, and even a good amount of gold — is equal to an astounding $55 billion, with an estimated $9 billion of that number from the smallest e-waste contributor: mobile phones. Ars Tecnica reports that smartphones are only used for about two years before they’re discarded. Even their chargers — even if they’re not obsolete — are thrown away with the old phones more often than not, because there has yet to be a universal charger for all smartphones and laptops.

According to the report from the UN/ITU, Europe and Russia generate a lot of e-waste globally, but also recycle it at a much higher rate of about 35 percent. Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden top the European list for best recycling rates by country. In the US, we produced 14 percent of the total e-waste and only recycled less than one quarter of it, which is just above the global average as of 2016. China, on the other hand, had nearly as much e-waste as the US at 16 percent, but seeing as the country has four times the population of the US, that number is not as bad as it looks. China recycled about 18 percent of its total e-waste in 2016.

Moreover, the report also states that electronics that are not properly recycled or disposed of can pose a risk to not only the environment, but to human health. Most notably, lead and mercury in the electronics can end up on the skin and even in the bloodstream, which especially poses a problem for children living in developing countries.

The silver lining is that some countries, and even some corporations, are starting to take e-waste seriously. As of 2016, six more countries have joined to regulate e-waste management since 2014. 

Some Corporations Take E-Waste Seriously

Some larger corporations are attempting to manage e-waste recycling and disposal properly. Apple, HP, Microsoft and other big corporations include details on how consumers can recycle their electronics, and some even offer a reward. For example, if you type “Apple Recycle” into Google, the first result is Apple’s recycling program, which offers a gift card or an in-store credit for recycling any old Apple device. Other big-name electronics manufacturers have similar programs, such as Microsoft, which currently offers a credit towards a new Surface and an additional 10 percent off with a student discount.

Many power companies (and even some appliance manufacturers) will give you cash for recycling an appliance, a credit on your utility bill, or an in-store credit.