E-Waste: The Biggest Environmental Crisis You’ve Never Heard Of

The E-Waste Crisis

In 2008, 60 Minutes ran a piece revealing what actually happens to our old electronics when we throw them away. In The Wasteland, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley follows the trail of electronic waste (e-waste) all the way to China. There, he finds fields of old computers and TVs from America lit on fire by locals looking to burn away plastics and valuable metals (see pictures below). Pelley also interviews National Resource Defense Council senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz about the rapid increase e-waste. Hershkowitz cites the staggering statistic that Americans throws away 130,000 computers every day. That was six years ago. How are we looking today?

Well, the short answer is worse. According to an Electronics TakeBack Coalition report (based largely on EPA findings), Americans threw away 142,000 computers per day in 2010 (the latest year e-waste data is available), as well as 416,000 mobile phones.  With dramatically increased iPhone and tablet sales in 2012, these numbers have most likely risen. e-waste crisis

Yet, as eye-catching as these numbers are, the problem of e-waste has largely flown under the radar. How can this be? One main reason is America’s current waste management system. Public garbage collectors do not have the infrastructure to recycle e-waste. Indeed, this creates a catch-22. People are unaware of the e-waste crisis, so there is no push for mass system to handle electronic waste. Conversely, there is no system to handle electronic waste, so people remain unaware.

As a society, we generally refuse to pay for things to be recycled. Why should we pay to recycle, the thought process goes, when we can throw things in the garbage for free? This is a legitimate claim, and there are some perverse incentives at work here. It is free to do the wrong thing (throwing e-waste in the garbage), but costly to do the right thing (paying to recycle).

But here is the kicker, doing the wrong thing it isn’t actually free, and doing the right thing doesn’t have to be costly. Picking up and hauling away garbage has significant costs (like paying for trucks, gasoline, and wages), costs we cover with our tax dollars. City garbage and recycling systems are funded by the tax payer. Electronic recycling is not a part of these systems (yet), but if it were, it would be as easy and free to recycle our electronics as it is to throw them away. This is an ideal system, however, not our reality. e-waste (1)

This puts recyclers in a bind, and is largely why electronics is the fastest growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide, according to Hershkowitz. Charging for recycling is not viable (because people have a financial incentive not to recycle) and no taxpayer-funded system to collect and recycle electronic waste exists on a mass scale.

This is where GreenCitizen steps in. At a GreenCitizen eco-center, you can drop off anything that plugs in or runs on batteries and we’ll recycle it for free. We also do more than 30 free electronics recycling pick-ups from business every week. So how can GreenCitizen recycle electronics without charging or receiving government funding? For the answer to that question, check out our blog post about VHS tapes to see how we process raw materials.

Written by Jake Hanft. Please contact him at jake.hanft@greencitizen.com with questions.

3 Comments on “E-Waste: The Biggest Environmental Crisis You’ve Never Heard Of

  1. Pingback: The Electronic Waste Crisis: 5 Things You Can Do to Help |

  2. Pingback: GreenCitizen Receives “Best For The World Award 2013” for its Electronics Recycling Efforts |

  3. Dakota

    My team and I are making a website for the Technology Student Association competition in our state. The competition is to show the harmful affects of e-waste on the environment. We were wondering if we could use the photos on your website. The photos will simply be used for our competition and no media use. The photos will also be cited and we will not claim them to be our own. Thanks for taking this into consideration.

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