My title borrows some hyperbole, but, is founded on truth. As a tech enthusiast who’s been immersed in this industry since learning of it, people are constantly perpetuating the myths and misconceptions that exist around recycling. Let’s start with the catalysts.
Consumers let go of their electronics for a variety of reasons. It could be a cracked screen on a smartphone or laptop, advances in technology, or electronics that just don’t “work” anymore or have no ready use. For the consumer, recycling is often presented as the best option for ridding themselves of this “e-waste”, and there’s no shortage of companies to accommodate them; e-waste is the largest municipal waste stream in the U.S., and with an expected 93.5 million tons in 2016 and an annual growth of 24%, it’s no surprise that a huge industry has exploded around it, along with explosive revenues: $18 billion in 2015, with an expected annual growth of $2 billion.
It’s good for the handlers of e-waste, whose profits continue to grow, but is it good for the consumer? Is it good for the environment? E-waste is a globalized business. Millions of pounds of electronics that are disposed of in the U.S. are shipped to developing nations and deposited in landfills, where little to no regulation exists, despite the best efforts from the EPA, R2, e-stewards, and the rest. Internationals can scour the landfills for scrap metal, exposing themselves to harmful elements such as lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride, a common component in circuit boards. At no point is the true value of the electronics ever recovered: cell phones are shredded and melted down, a process in which 20% to 35% of their contents are lost, including most if not all of their rare-earth elements.
The average smartphone contains 62 types of metals, with a small group of them composed of rare-earth metals such as scandium and yttrium. If you take a variety of smartphones, you’ll find 16 out of the 17 rare-earth metals. The missing one, promethium, is absent due to its radioactivity. The extraction of these metals from the earth is extremely difficult, as they’re not “mined” the way, for example, copper is. These are finite resources and only a few of these metals have substitutes. Rare-earth metals are also used in a broad spectrum of applications, from televisions to tablets, computers, camera lenses, and military missiles.
When you “recycle” your phone—or any of your electronics—these materials are not recovered. There are no smartphones or tablets made completely from recycled parts. Your electronics are shredded into fragments, sorted in various stages, and finally, they are refined into raw commodities.
When you use your smartphone, you rarely think of the energy and labor that goes into its development and production, from the initial stages of technological innovation and engineering to the extraction from the earth and industrial processing of the raw materials; to assembly, testing, and finally, the store where you buy it, or the company that delivers it to you for your unboxing ceremony. Early upgrades are a priority for the tech-savvy looking for the fastest and newest. Other consumers may join the ranks of the 25% of smartphone owners with smashed screens. At this point, you’ll either try to sell your fallen phone or choose to recycle it with any burgeoning repair or recycling companies asking for your business.
Though it’s presented as the best and most efficient option for e-waste disposal, recycling is actually the last and least sustainable resort; to say it unequivocally, there is no “green” method of electronics recycling. It is, above all else, an industry that has risen to the call of a growing necessity. So what’s the alternative, what option not only recovers the material value of e-waste but is also the most environmentally responsible?
Repair, reuse, and re-commerce extend the lifespan of electronics and is the first and best restraint against the monolithic e-waste crisis. Computers can be upgraded. Broken smartphones can be repaired, their data wiped, and all manner of electronics going as far back as tube radios can be refurbished and introduced to a competitive second-hand market. Our commodity culture is powered by newness, obsolescence, and urgency, and this sort of apparatus is rooted in a sort of capitalism that works against the consumer, works against the manufacturer, and works, ultimately, against the environment. It doesn’t have to be this way.
This is the space that called to me when I got to see the industry first hand. As a serial entrepreneur who’s been on both sides of the spectrum from a lean and means software company to a 10-touches disposition and repair entity, e360 Technologies provides me with a unique perspective. With refined systems and processes, we’ve been able to refurbish and reach the end market with hundreds of thousands of devices. Electronics recyclers are needed now more than ever. Refurbishers, like the company I founded at e360, are a necessary complement to an outbound supply chain in this industry to any recycler that genuinely wants to follow through with their core mission statements of being eco-centric. I can think of 5 different electronics recycling clients in PA who are all marketing to the same client, but, have vastly different internal operations. One of our very first partnerships in Plum is constantly working with us in tandem to stay positioned at the bleeding edge of reuse trends. Others are explicitly concerned about pounds produced, sorted, and commodities resold.
What can you do, as a consumer to emphasize reuse in a world of recycling? If you’re adventurous, sign up for www.ifixit.com and join the ever-growing community of repair enthusiasts keeping their own devices in use. Want a turn-key solution? Look for service providers that do have a focus on refurbishment, and compliment this with team members who focus on end-user repair. Connect with local, similarly aligned eco-centric companies to seek their advice. Chances are, they’ll have established networks with responsible vendors they can connect you with. It’s better for your pocketbook, the environment, and the local business you patronize as a service provider.
CEO & founder of Clarabyte.
Image Credit: https://www.morguefile.com/