Zero Waste Moving Guide, Part III: Electronics


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WHAT IS IT

Literally anything that has a plug and/or battery. In other words, it’s not just your old phones and laptops, it’s also that margarita blender you swore you’d use every weekend (you didn’t), your mom’s old waffle maker, and your 3-in-1 printer/copier/scanner that embodies the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

Discarded electronics make up the world’s fastest growing waste stream. According to United Nations University, the global accumulation of e-waste is 49.3 million tons per year—enough, says a 2018 NYT Magazine feature, to fill more than a million 18-wheelers, which would stretch from NYC to Bangkok and back. Electronics often contain toxic elements like lead, cadmium, and mercury—stuff no one wants in their soil or drinking water—and even if they don’t, they will contain metals that are costly and environmentally destructive to mine from the earth.

WHERE IT GOES

Most e-waste recycling is focused on reclaiming metals—iron, copper, aluminum, copper, silver, gold, palladium, iridium, and rare earth metals, and to a lesser extent, plastics and glass. These materials are usually reused in similar applications in new electronics.

YOUR OPTIONS:

I.Resell — 

Get cash for items that still have life in them through any of the many, many options available, like:

II.Donate — 

Many non-profit organizations want those old computers, printers, digital cameras, etc. that you can’t wait to get rid of.

  • The Cristina Foundation is an outstanding resource that lists out the electronic items needed by organizations proximate to your zip code. 
  • World Computer Exchange ships computers all over the world to help reduce the digital divide for youth in developing countries. Further and most importantly, they install teaching software to all of their computers before exporting them—so they're only exporting usable devices—and in many cases they are also connected to the educational programs on the ground. This means accountability for what happens to the computers is high, and they’re less likely to end up as e-waste for the community to dispose of (see the “Recycle” section below for more on why this is important).

III. Recycle —

When I first started writing this post, I had a long, happy list of consumer-accessible e-waste recycling options: municipal recycling events! Goodwill! Best Buy! So many different opportunities to do the right thing! 

And then, I saw this

And so began my three-week dive into the depths of e-waste recycling, during which I discovered that when it comes to recycling electronics, the story is... complicated, especially if you live in the United States. If you want the full version of why, continue reading below; it's a little lengthy, so if you'd prefer just the cliff's notes, jump down to "Why does it matter?"     

{{Clears throat, steps up on soapbox}}

Hashtag IT'S COMPLICATED

The reason e-waste recycling is more complicated in the United States than in other developed nations is that the U.S. is the only country in the world which has not yet ratified the Basel Convention, which restricted the export of hazardous waste (including e-waste) from developed countries to developing ones in 1997.

In the absence of the Basel Convention, proponents of e-waste regulation have been trying to pass the U.S. Responsible Electronics Recycling Act since 2011, but despite what appears to be bipartisan support in congress and widespread support from e-waste trade groups, environmental groups, and a slew of electronics companies, the bill sat in subcommittee for two congressional sessions without movement.

It was updated and reintroduced in February of 2017, at the beginning of the 115th congress (i.e. the current session, which runs from 1/3/2017 - 1/3/2019). If passed, it would be a boon to the U.S. economy, creating in upwards of 42,000 domestic jobs; however, since being referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the same day it was introduced, nothing has happened.

What all of this means in practice, is that there’s no strong domestic regulation in place to prevent U.S. recycling companies from exporting our e-waste to countries that are ill-equipped to handle it; therefore, some percentage of the electronics you and I bring to recycling centers actually ends up sitting in vast, leaky piles, polluting the soil, air, and waterways of foreign nations. 

...BUT JUST HOW COMPLICATED?

Two studies in 2013, one by the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), and the other by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) suggest that e-waste exported to developing nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East makes up only a small fraction (~9%) of all e-waste generated in the U.S.

However, a closer look at the research methods used in each of these studies reveals flaws that make this conclusion pretty dubious in my estimation.

For starters, the USITC study estimates e-waste export quantities based on voluntary survey data collected from the e-waste recycling companies themselves. Companies that engage in trade behaviors that are widely frowned upon and, in many cases, violate international law, would have had no incentive to voluntarily disclose such behaviors, potentially skewing the data to paint a picture that is far rosier than reality.

The MIT/NCER study relied on the more robust measure of trade data to determine export amounts, but authors note that gaps in available data likely make export quantities appear artificially low.

In contrast, more recent studies by the e-Trash Transparency Project of the Basel Action Network, an organization working to diminish the harmful effects of illegal e-waste trade, found that when e-waste from the U.S. was actually tracked using GPS location devices, the fraction that ended up in developing nations was much higher—between 30% and 40%. Their sample size was small (200 tracking devices), so it’s too soon to make sweeping generalizations, but, they delivered their tracked e-waste to a variety of well-recognized entry points into the recycling process: corporate electronics recyclers, charity thrift stores, and retailers who advertised e-recycling services, and found at least some issues in every single category, so, the problem appears to be widespread. 

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Why does it matter?

Oh, you know. Justice. Ethics. the ENTIRE global ecology. 

In the U.S., our economic position in the world makes it easy for us to send things "away"—especially things of value. And e-waste is valuable: according to one expert in e-waste recycling, gold is roughly 80 times more concentrated in one ton of cell phones than it is in one ton of earth from a productive gold mine. But these valuable metals come packaged with toxic waste, and exporting it to the highest bidder without first ensuring that it will be handled responsibly and safely is tantamount to taking advantage of the world's poor. 

Exposés like the one linked to above from PBS News Hour in 2016 show underpaid migrant workers in China sorting through piles of old electronics with little or no protective gear. In order to earn a living, these individuals are repeatedly exposing themselves and their families to the toxic materials in e-waste, like heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and lead), and harmful chemicals like hydrochloric acid, brominated flame retardants, and dioxins, all of which have catastrophic effects on human and environmental health. There are similar stories playing out across parts of Africa and the Middle East as well.

Further, the backyard recycling operations common in these developing countries typically lack safety measures to prevent chemicals from entering the air, soil, and water in the surrounding environment, so the deleterious effects of the toxic materials in e-waste can reach far beyond the workers who come into direct contact with them. This video from e-Stewards is fairly long, but the section from 2:47 to 4:51 underscores the widespread health and environmental consequences of such operations in heartbreaking detail:

How to responsibly recycle your e-waste 

  • If you live in the U.S., only recycle your e-waste with companies that are e-Stewards certified recyclers. In Boston where I live—and I suspect in many other cities—the only route for consumers to access certified recyclers is through drop-off locations at Staples, which has signed a company-wide agreement to only utilize e-Steward certified recycling routes. 


tangential post-soapbox-rant BONUS:

  • On a loosely related note, it turns out those CDs and DVDs you haven’t touched since 2003 are not recyclable via curbside recycling, and neither are their brittle plastic cases. Since finding a buyer or a place to donate them to might not yield results in the age of streaming, recycling them is likely your best option. Luckily, the CD Recycling Center of America exists in Salem, NH to help you do just that. I couldn’t figure out their label printing situation so I just ate the USPS shipping cost ($8) and it still felt like I got the good end of the deal.