Electronics are an integral part of our lives in the United States. We use computers and phones at work and home, and almost every house has a television. There are electronic components in our cars and appliances. When one of these many electronics breaks or a new phone model comes out we are left with the dilemma of what to do with the old product. Do we let these items clutter up our garages, basements, and junk drawers? Do we throw the broken cell phone or refrigerator in the landfill? Ideally, the answer would be no. We should repair, sell or recycle used or broken electronics, but too often these items are simply thrown in a landfill.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills in the United States (US) are designed for disposal of three waste types: municipal waste, waste from construction and demolition, and hazardous waste. These landfills are constructed and managed to prevent the escape of hazardous and other materials. Once an electronic is placed in a landfill the recyclable components cannot be salvaged. The EPA stated that in 2012 the United States alone generated 3.4 million tons of electronic waste and that only 1 million tons were actually recycled, meaning that 2.4 million tons were thrown in landfills or incinerated. Electronics often contain toxic materials such as lead, cadmium, copper, phosphorus, lithium, and mercury that when disposed of in a landfill can contribute to air and water pollution. Imagine the impact of throwing a computer or television with a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screen, which can contain up to 8 or more pounds of lead, in a landfill or a flat screen television, which contains less lead, but may contain mercury. It is estimated that roughly 70% of heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium, and 40% of lead found in US landfills is from electronics. If the goal is to prevent the release of harmful materials from electronics into our environment and reuse materials contained in these devices, then throwing them in the trash is far from effective and potentially detrimental to human and environmental health. To further understand why it is harmful to not recycle our electronics, we have to understand what goes into making items such as phones and televisions.
High tech electronics are composed of a number of often finite raw materials, including iron, gold, copper, aluminum, platinum, oil, and palladium, among others, making their production financially, energetically, and environmentally costly. These elements have to be mined from the earth and then refined for use. These materials are then compiled into whatever product is being produced. This incurs a high environmental cost, including increased greenhouse gas emissions and depletion of limited natural resources. Recycling electronics can significantly reduce emissions and resource depletion, as materials needed to produce new electronics can be removed from older ones. For example, it has been estimated that one ton of scrap from computers could contain more gold than would be found in 171 tons of gold ore. Reusing materials from recycled electronics can reduce overall waste accrual and management needs both nationally and globally.
Understanding the importance of recycling, repairing or selling used electronics doesn’t answer the question of how and where to recycle electronics. Larger municipalities, such as Anchorage, have public drop-off sites for these items, but small towns and villages in Alaska often lack this convenience. Other options include dropping off items at certain electronics stores or using manufacturer and online electronic recyclers. When disposing of electronics in these ways it is important to make sure you are using a certified electronics recycler to ensure that products are processed at a high environmental standard for reuse or approved disposal.
Seward lacks the ability to offer year round electronics recycling, but Sustainable Seward in partnership with Cook Inlet Keepers, Spenard Builders Supply, and Peninsula Waste Services is making it easy to recycle those old electronics piled in closets, basements and garages. On May 12th, 2018, Sustainable Seward will be hosting the first ever electronics recycling event in Seward. Items such as copy machines, printers, scanners, ink/toner, televisions, radios, small kitchen appliances, household batteries, and VCR and DVD players are commonly accepted.
To volunteer at the event, sign up at this website:
By Emily Johnson