We know our old CRT television sets are loaded with lead, our batteries are bursting with heavy metals and although strides have been made in reducing mercury content, plenty of our old electronics in the attic have it in spades. It’s the kind of stuff the average person understands should not go into their friendly neighborhood landfill — or anyone else’s, for that matter.
The awareness seems to have paid off. Today, everyone from Best Buy and Target to nonprofits such as the National Center for Electronics Recycling have hopped on board with the EPA’s efforts to recycle electronics.
Sure, the case could be made that the major corporations have jumped on the bandwagon just for good PR, but the fact is that all efforts to recycle electronics are worthwhile, and for reasons extending beyond our landfills.
The raw materials that go into computers need to come from somewhere, and when manufacturers turn to virgin resources, not only are they mining unnecessarily, they’re increasing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and energy consumption.
“It’s safe to say there are materials, particularly metals, in electronics that should be recycled so that we don’t have to continue to extract as many from natural resources,” says Walter Alcorn, vice president of sustainability for the Consumer Electronics Association, which provides information about how consumers can recycle their electronics at digitaltips.org.
The EPA estimates that for every million cell phones recycled, we recover 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium (a member of the platinum family, for those of you who are not geologists or chemists).
The recovered metals don’t just end up back in the electronics stream: Some of them might be in the jewelry you received for Christmas, the metal statue you bought at an art foundry and possibly in your car.
Making new materials
The plastics and glass can be recovered as well. They either return to the electronics materials stream, or they are turned into entirely new things. The plastics often go into lawn furniture and car parts while the leaded glass can be used as a raw material to manufacture new cathode ray tubes or as a fluxing agent in the lead smelting process.
Alcorn explains that chips and circuit boards are valuable materials in the recycling stream, and that some of those materials do not require processing to be used again.
As for how all the materials are recovered, it tends to be from one of two processes, and sometimes a combination of both: dismantling to recover things like circuit boards, or shredding to recover the metals.
“Shredding involves a mechanical separation of different materials,” Alcorn says. “Typically you see shredding of metal-bearing parts and components resulting in the separation of, let’s say, different metals. Some recyclers focus more on one or the other recycling process.”
It is well-established that when electronics end up in the wrong hands (or the landfill stream), they can end up in developing nations, where the valuable compounds are extracted through improper and unsafe means. Think acid bath. As for how the electronics are getting to these countries, well, it’s not exactly a black market, but plenty of people would find it shady.
“Basically [the electronics] would go to folks who are collecting products, sometimes for recycling, but then turn around and sell them through brokers, who then ship them to these developing countries,” Alcorn says. The EPA currently does not have hard data about just how much of our e-waste ends up in other countries, but it is mounting a study of the flow of electronics from the country.
In the meantime, there are certification programs endorsed by the EPA for electronics recyclers, so consumers can know the recyclers their electronics are going to are actually recycling properly. To find certified recyclers, visit e-stewards.org, or r2solutions.org.