We are far enough into the digital age that massive electronic waste is a pervasive problem for even the developing world.
The churn of new and discarded personal phones, tablets, computers, TVs, navigation devices, etc. means the average person is generating toxic trash on a regular basis, and there are no indications of a slowdown.
Recycling of glass, metal, and paper has been a long-term success because there are manufacturing buyers for those materials (one aluminum can is worth about 2 cents). The market can support not only the costs of collection and cleaning, but also efforts to educate the public and to advertise for the desired action of using bins and cooperating with local governments.
According to the EPA, in 2016 recycling created:
- 681,000 jobs
- $37.8 billion in wages; and
- $5.5 billion in tax revenues.
As for electronics, CDs can be shredded into polycarbonate plastic, but buyers are hard to find. Still, businesses exist for collecting old and unused electronics. Many also perform data wipes and so offer a security benefit.
OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) are obligated to help with cleanup in the life cycle. This is enforced by Extended Producer Responsibility laws, which are administered mostly by states; for manufacturers to sell in that state, they must take some responsibility for end of life recycling or disposal. The amount of assistance required is usually determined by market share.
Collections are even moving to the developing world; phone manufacturers use revenue from new phone sales to collect and ship phones from places like Africa to be properly disposed of elsewhere.
Closing the Loop is a Dutch company working on e-waste in Cameroon, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia:
Initially, the idea was to generate revenue entirely from the value of commodities recovered from phones in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. But the economics of that approach didn’t work because it was so costly to try to set up new collection networks. “We lost money there,” said (founder) De Kluijver. “Let’s just call it ‘learning money.’” In 2016, the business pivoted toward the current offset model with corporate backing.
Closing the Loop partners with local stores and churches.
“(Large corporations) funding the initiative can then promote the fact that for each new product they put on the market, an old one has been collected and processed through proper channels. (As of early 2019), the effort has collected roughly 2 million devices...
“I believe the telecom industry is the first global industry that could really become waste free,” De Kluijver said. “The more customers we support, the more waste we can collect. And that allows us to become more and more a metal producer – an urban mining one.”
We applaud the electronics manufacturers practicing corporate responsibility AND maintaining brand integrity. Furthermore, we recognize that EPR laws are an example of positive government oversight, happening in the US at the state level — much preferable to federal. Without these regulations, the tragedy of the commons would result in dystopian metal waste dumps all over your neighborhood and in your water. Happy shopping!