Minimising Electronic Waste – What Consumers Can Do To Beat This 21st Century Challenge

Electronic Waste

The level of convenience that technology and personal electronics have brought to our lives is hard to overstate. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual who is fully engaged with the modern world who does not use a cell phone, computer, TV screen, or tablet device in some way each and every day.

While the benefits of all this technology are certainly immense, so too are the hidden costs, which are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Put simply, e-waste is what becomes of our cell phones, iPods, lap tops, keyboards, flat screen TVs, and LCD monitors when we no longer need them. Different from other landfill-clogging waste, e-waste is particularly pernicious because over time, it emits chemicals including lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, and flame retardants.

Due to the massive volume of e-waste, developed nations are increasingly exporting theirs to nations like China, India, and Nigeria despite the fact that there are laws in place to prohibit the practice. Many people living in these developing nations salvage scrap metal and electronics as a way to earn money, and the toxic elements in their working environment are of great hazard to their health. It is estimated that the US exports up to 80% of their e-waste to China.

While there are ways to recycle e-waste, less than 20% of the roughly 400 million electronic items we dump each year are disposed of in a responsible manner. The EU banned e-waste from landfills in the 1990s, putting the onus of responsibility on the manufacturers. But in the US, there still is not any federal legislation concerning the disposal of e-waste. This means that responsible disposal is largely up to the consumer.

If you are a concerned citizen and consumer, you can and should take responsibility for your own e-waste. Here are some ideas for how to do this:

  • The first step you can take is at the buying stage of consumption. Choose to buy your electronics from a retailer that takes responsibility for the life cycle of their products. You can use Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics for ideas of where to look.
  • When one of your electronic is broken or not working properly, try and see if you can get it fixed before you purchase a new one. This will often require sending it back to the manufacturer or finding a specialist repair shop. Often times, something as simple (and cheap) as replacing a capacitor or resistor can give the device a newly lengthened lifespan.
  • If you’re ready to upgrade or buy a new device but your old one is still working, see if you can sell it to another willing buyer. Just because something is not shiny and brand new doesn’t mean another person may not find it useful. Online classifieds or websites like Ebay are an easy way to do this.
  • Many local councils or community centres have e-waste recycling events, where you can bring your old electronics knowing they will be taken to designated recycling centres. Simply save up your old electronics until you can find an event like these.
  • You can also lobby your local politicians to put tighter controls on the exportation of e-waste to developing nations and to hold manufacturers to account who don’t adhere to take-back standards.

Like many environmental issues, e-waste is one that will likely only be addressed fully when the consumer demands it. Just because technology and electronics are such important parts of our lives, doesn’t mean we should overlook the cost they have on other people and the environment. When it comes to e-waste, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ should not be a mantra we are willing to adopt.

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