This post, first published in August 2020 by Shelby Bell, has been updated.
In over 50 years, we’ve moved from 1.44-megabyte floppy disks to 532-gigabyte flash drives smaller than your thumb. The computers that took the United States to the surface of the moon in 1969 are now trivialized by the technology we carry in our pockets—a modern iPhone has 100,000 times the processing power as Apollo 11’s onboard system.
Yet, printing from the cloud and the capability to make a Zoom call from practically anywhere on the planet didn’t happen overnight. As technological innovation goes, there are countless iterations that allow us to progress from point A to point B. And the modern business takes advantage of just about all of them.
While we heedlessly move on to faster connections, smaller devices, and the electronics of the future, many of the iterations of the past half-century are still around—underground, overseas, and in the atmosphere.
It’s called e-waste, and our appetites for new tech make it the fastest-growing waste stream (even outpacing plastic) in America today.
The Importance of Proper E-Waste Disposal
From manufacturing to retail to the office building, companies and organizations are pressured to keep up with the latest and greatest technology to streamline and automate processes, protect financial data, store information, communicate with one another, and even keep bag lunches cool. It’s a dizzying pace of buying, using, and disposing of tech.
For many businesses, however, this vicious consumption cycle is a sign of "progress"—one where disposal is an afterthought. Unfortunately, indifference means it’s most often disposed of incorrectly.
In 2019, the annual accumulation of global e-waste reached a whopping 59 million tons. And of that amount, only 17.4% was collected and recycled. Furthermore, in a five-year period leading up to 2019, total generation of e-waste grew 21%, leading researchers to suggest that the amount of e-waste could double in the next 16 years.
On the home front, the situation in the U.S. is, without mincing words, out of control. A UN report posited that the United States produces the second-most electronic waste in the world (behind only China), generating 7.6 million tons in 2019. [Of note, the most recent EPA report puts that number at 2.7 million tons but points out it does not have complete data for selected consumer electronics that were combusted for energy recovery or sent to landfills.]
While the true number is hard to calculate, one thing that is certain is e-waste’s rise in the years to come. Sadly, many devices are thrown away at the end of their useful life (the average useful life varies by device, however the average phone is replaced every 18 months) or in favor of the newest upgrade or model.
Turnover is status quo. Yet, the question many businesses and consumers fail to take into account is that if only 17.4% of all electronics are recycled per year, where is the other 84.6% going?
The answer follows suit with other unwanted MSW. A considerable amount of e-waste is landfilled, sent to scrap yards, or paid to be warehoused. For richer countries, unwanted electronics are exported to poorer countries, where lack of infrastructure to handle them often means illegally dumping or burning the waste.
Source: Basel Action Network
In one way, this practice is a treasure-to-trash operation, as consumers fail to see the real value of their once cherished electronics. Many discarded devices contain prized raw materials, including gold, copper, palladium, and other metals that could be used in other devices. For instance, an estimated $21 billion (or more) of reclaimable gold and silver are currently sitting in landfills across the world, stuck in electronics.
And, categorized as more-recent precious commodities, a shortage of semiconductor chips is hurting manufacturing, while experts predict that the production of electric cars will stall if recycling for lithium-ion batteries does not improve.
In addition to housing valuable materials, electronics also have a dark side and contain various types of dangerous chemicals, including: lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants.
In recycling facilities, items with embedded batteries can spark fires. And when disposed of in landfill, these hazardous materials eventually leach into the environment, polluting air, soil, and water—as well as impacting the livelihood of people living near landfills throughout the world. The Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on solving global pollution problems, estimates that e-waste threatens the health of 100 million people or more worldwide.
Underlying all of this is the importance of e-waste recycling. Recycling electronics keeps foreign substances out and keeps native raw materials in. Recycling enables less raw material needing to be extracted from nature to create new devices—effectively reducing energy costs and contributing to more sustainable processes that support the circular economy.
So, how does your business get involved? Below are a few, simple ways businesses can start reducing their electronic waste immediately.
ELECTRONIC RECYCLING RESOURCES FOR BUSINESSES
1. LEVERAGE THE CLOUD
Using “the cloud” involves storing and managing data on a network of servers maintained on the internet by a third party. Cloud computing can help businesses proactively reduce e-waste by lessening the demand on hard drives, so devices will last longer—reducing the need to purchase, repair, or replace hardware as often.
Additionally, cloud computing results in everything being hosted on your provider’s servers, meaning businesses can do away with the costs and maintenance of running their own data center. According to eukhost, cloud computing leads to cost savings for businesses because in addition to reduced maintenance fees, “you won’t need to pay for space, power, physical security, insurance, and air-conditioning.”
For companies who may be hesitant about using the cloud, know that there is a good chance you already use cloud computing services—such as Google Drive, Gmail, or Amazon Web Services—without even knowing it.
2. USE A THIRD-PARTY ELECTRONICS RECYCLER
Although the United States does not have a federal law that requires businesses to recycle, many state and local governments have introduced their own waste and recycling mandates and regulations that commercial businesses must follow. As an owner or manager, it's important to understand exactly what regulations exist in your region so you can meet these expectations.
Luckily, if your business generates large amounts of e-waste, a third-party hauler can likely recycle the electronics for you. Companies like RoadRunner help businesses process their electronic waste in the most environmentally-friendly and cost-effective way possible, seeking out and delivering to accredited, industry-leading facilities across the country.
3. ALIGN E-WASTE RECYCLING WITH YOUR COMPANY CULTURE
Whether it’s the time that goes into finding a solution for old electronics or lack of understanding as to which are valuable, reusable, or recyclable, enthusiasm for outgoing e-waste can be low.
However, through building excitement and educational resources around recycling e-waste, businesses may be surprised to learn that it helps promote employee buy-in and maximize recycling participation.
Engage your employees with some of the startling facts above, gamify the collection by downloading an app that shows the environmental impact you make in a year, or even reassess your consumption by auditing which machines and devices are truly in need of replacement and which can be restored or optimized.
4. DESTROY DATA DEVICES
Many managers avoid e-waste recycling because of the concern that recycling electronics may expose sensitive data. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your information before safely disposing of electronic waste, including hiring a company or consultant with this expertise to destroy your data on your devices before recycling them. Check out this list of free data destruction companies!
5. TRADE-IN TO UPGRADE
As we mentioned earlier, upgrades are essential to keeping your business ahead of the curve. But a mandatory trade-in policy could be invaluable. Require your team to hand in their older, empty and data-free devices the next time you're distributing new gadgets.
The good news is you’re unlikely to see any resistance—in a survey conducted with 10,000 people across the world, 45% believe that manufacturers should handle the recycling of electronics. The same research also found that consumers are particularly interested in trade-in programs, with three-quarters of them hoping to participate in such a program by 2022.
With scarce materials and heightened expectations for sustainability, there’s a strong chance the manufacturer of your business’s electronics offers an e-waste recycling program in the form of rebate, buy-back, or zero-cost collection, too. For example, Best Buy’s “Trade-in” program will purchase old electronics for a reward or discount. As of 2019, Best Buy had collected an impressive two billion pounds of e-waste and counting.
IBM, Apple, HP, Xerox, Sony—they’re all actively receiving devices, and this handy list from the EPA can point you in the right direction for responsible upgrading.
6. DONATE TO CHARITY
For gently used but no longer wanted devices, it’s fairly hassle-free to give them a second life at local schools, non-profits, underserved populations, or community groups. Donations can help provide access to a world of knowledge and social connection that will make a huge impact, both on the planet and to the empowered individuals who inherit your electronics.
Many donation sites exist that can put your devices to good use. As a prime example, Dell and Goodwill have partnered together since 2004 to collect more than 500 million pounds of electronics and have recently expanded the program to over 2,000 Goodwill locations.
7. CHECK-IN LOCALLY
Currently, at least 25 states have established a statewide electronic waste program. California’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 was first, establishing a funding system for collecting and recycling certain types of electronic waste. Since then, Minnesota, Oregon, Connecticut, North Carolina, and others have followed suit. But even if you’re in a state that hasn’t instituted e-cycling laws, there’s a strong chance a local retailer or municipality is accepting unwanted electronic devices, including TVs, computers, batteries, and more.
Inquire with your local government whether there are designated drop-off locations or semi-regular collection events. And as quick-reference resources that expand into retail, Call2Recycling.org hosts a finder for batteries and cell phones, or you can search by the item with Earth911’s tool.
We Can Help
Your business can’t be expected to deny progress through technological advancements, but it must be responsible for its churn of outgoing e-waste. And if it’s an easy, low-cost solution to excess e-waste you’re looking for, RoadRunner may be able to help.