774,000,000 - the number of iPhones we've bought since Apple launched the product back in 2007. 774 MILLION. That's a lot of zeroes in less than a decade. In fact, this is so many devices, that If laid end to end, the tiny 4.5 inch-long phones would circle the earth twice, with a cool three-quarters of a million to spare. Which may seem like a silly thing to bring up, except for the fact that when you take a look at it a bit less literally, these devices and countless others are actually starting to blanket our planet.
E-waste is the Fastest Growing Waste Stream
With the rapid acceleration of technology and the resulting proliferation of devices, we're buying, using and disposing of an incredible number of devices. With each season comes upgraded models, better color options and ever more features, triggering a corresponding increase in the number of units thrown in landfill each year. The average phone is replaced just every 18 months. According to the United Nations Environment Program, electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world.
We no longer want our old desktop monitors, VCRs or outdated TV screens, but that means they're piling up in landfills around the world.
The US is the biggest culprit, throwing away an estimated two to three million tons of electronics annually, according to the EPA. The global estimate has climbed over a whopping 48 million tons. So where do all of these unwanted electronics wind up? The answer, unfortunately, is more often than not the landfill. The EPA estimates that merely 15% of our wanted electronics are recycled. In fact, e-waste now comprises about 2% off the national waste stream, but makes up a terrifying 70% of America's overall toxic waste.
But What Exactly is E-Waste?
Broadly defined, electronic waste includes all unwanted consumer and commercial devices. Typically, these devices are tossed at the end of their useful life, but more and more frequently, they're just disposed of in favor of the latest and greatest model.
Which highlights a major crux of the global digital dump: the point at which electronics effectively become "waste" has not been extensively explored. STEP - an international initiative spearheaded by a collection of scientists, academics, activities and government agencies devoted to Solving the E-waste Problem - adds a thoughtful addendum to their definition of e-waste, defining them as: "[those items that] are discarded by the owner as waste without the intention of re-use." This emphasizes that even once we're finished wanting our old laptops, cell phones, tv screens, monitors, music players, microchips, etc., they're still potentially useful. There's a huge potential in this missed opportunity to harness computing power and resources.
In fact, at RoadRunner, we consider "e-waste" a bit of a misnomer. Donated or refurbished machines can help underfunded schools teach valuable skills, or provide opportunities for low-income houses to procure secondhand devices that can dramatically improve quality of life by increasing access to the internet, job resources, and social networks. On an even more quantitative level, used electronics happen to also be troves of valuable, hard-to-manufacture materials, including precious metals, coppers, specialized glass and plastic. An estimated $21 billion dollars of reclaimable gold and silver are currently sitting in landfills across the world, stuck in devices.
From Treasure, Leach Toxins
Aside from a veritable treasure trove, our old electronics also house various types of dangerous chemicals, including: lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. When indiscriminately thrown into the trash, these hazardous materials eventually leach into the environment, polluting air, soil and water - not to mention impacting the livelihood of countless waste and recovery specialists and people living near landfills worldwide. The Blacksmith Institute estimates that e-waste threatens the health of 100 million people worldwide.
Recyclers are being so overwhelmed with castoff electronic devices, that for years they have been exporting them, often illegally, overseas - primarily to China, India and other countries throughout Asia and Africa. These countries receive the burden of our discarded e-waste, an estimated 80% of the world's unwanted electronics. Here, regulations are lax and procedures are rudimentary, meaning that many of the people dismantling the old devices for valuable bits of metal and plastic wind up with high levels of exposure to toxic metals and fumes. The environmental impact is equally deleterious - an extreme example being Guiyu, China, where plastic circuits litter streets, ashes cloud the sky and high quantities of heavy metals pollute the water and soil.
Electronic Recycling 101 For Offices
The good news is: there are myriad ways to recover e-waste. And, by overhauling internal practices, companies have a unique opportunity to make a huge global impact. Here are a few ways your office can start recycling its older electronics:
Trade-in to Grade Up | Upgrades are essential to keeping your business on the cutting-edge. But consider requiring your team to hand in their empty, data-free old devices next time you're distributing the next-gen gadgets. With a bulk, your business can even sell them to a buy-back program like those offered by Best Buy, Gazelle or Office Depot.
Encourage BYOE | With the new always-on mindset, the modern employee is seldom every offline, meaning that most people keep one set of work devices and another set of personal devices. By encouraging a "Bring Your Own Electronic" program, your business can help limit the number of devices we as a population burn through, and can make travel and data management must easier on your team.
Empower Your Local Community | For those gently-used-but-no-longer-coveted devices, give them a second life at local schools, non-profits, or community groups. They can help provide access to a world of knowledge and social connection that will make a big difference - both on the planet and to the people you empower.
How does your office manage electronic end of life? Share your ideas and thoughts with our community in the comments section below! Plus, stay tuned for Part II of the e-waste saga next month on Waste Watchers!