With computers, televisions and mobile phones constantly improving and evolving, consumers are renewing their technological devices at a rate faster than ever before. But when a new electronic gadget arrives, an unwanted one is left behind. And as a society, we just don’t know what to do with them.
Now, the electronic waste is piling up to new heights, and we need to address it before it’s too late. But first we need to figure out how to do it.
How much electronic waste is there?
According to one survey, 44% of Americans upgrade their mobile phones whenever their network provider allows them, which is normally every two years. 54% say they will upgrade their phone “only when it stops working,” which, as it happens, is usually just two or three years.
Though TVs can be more expensive and seem to be less susceptible to replacement than phones, experts say consumers replace their TVs every four to five years—not as infrequently as you may have expected. Laptops, too, are replaced at around the same frequency, with manufacturers only building them to last for around three or four years.
This is a symptom of something called “planned obsolescence”, a manufacturing principle in which firms purposely build their products to break down sooner than they might really need to in order to create demand for their future replacement products.
With consumers getting rid of old machines at such a fast rate, and manufacturers actively encouraging this, we have to wonder where the old, broken, or unwanted models are going.
Where does electronic waste go?
As a 2014 article in Time Magazine explained: “old electronics are chock full of toxic stuff that should never make it to a landfill.” Among this “toxic stuff” is arsenic, cadmium and lead; if left in landfills, all of these chemicals can seep out into the ecosystem to harm plants, wildlife, and ultimately humans, who will be left with only a highly contaminated food supply.
With these environmental hazards in mind, it is shocking to read how much electronic waste still ends up in landfills, and how much damage it is doing to those who live close to them.
Though there has been an increase in e-recycling year-on-year since 2000, far more electronic waste is dumped than recycled. But since people are buying electronic appliances at greater frequencies than they were at the start of the millennium, this proportional increase in recycling will have done little to fix the environment. In fact, the UN estimates that in spite of an increase in recycling, global e-waste levels are increasing rapidly, likely to reach 50 megatons by 2018.
According to the UN study, the UK is one of the worst offenders when it comes to improper disposal of electronic waste. However, rather than fester in the landfills of Great Britain, a large amount of this electronic waste is exported to developing parts of the world, illegally.
How can we recycle electronic waste sustainably?
The best and most sustainable way to remove electronic waste is through what’s called WEEE recycling. An acronym of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, WEEE recycling has become a big part of the work of professional clearance companies. South East England-based clearance firm Clearance Solutions handle WEEE disposal for their clients, citing the dangerous consequences of incorrectly disposing of electronic waste.
Since sending an unwanted electronic device to a landfill will undoubtedly harm people and the environment, either close to home or further afield, we should end this practice immediately. Donating or reselling old phones, laptops, tablets and TVs is one way to avoid sending them to landfills. There are hundreds of charities dedicated to collecting old electricals, such as those found in this list here.
If your old devices are too broken to donate, contact a certified e-recycling firm, or your local government for details of how best to proceed. If everyone works to reduce the e-waste they leave in landfills, the epidemic will slowly become more manageable, and we can tackle the large electronic landfills in developing and deprived areas of the world.