It's easy to get excited about getting new gadgets, but we rarely give an afterthought to what happens to our old laptops or cell phones after we put them out on the curb. Some of us might be more responsible and bring them to the nearest recycling facility for proper disposal, but the fact of the matter is e-waste – which includes any discarded or end-of-life appliances that used electricity or has electrically-powered parts – contain both valuable and hazardous materials such as lead or mercury. And like other toxin-containing goods, e-waste requires special recycling methods in order to properly dispose of its materials.
An Environmental and Social Scourge
Sadly, the nation dumps between 300 and 400 million electronic items per year, yet less than 20% of that e-waste is recycled properly. About 50 million cell phones are replaced worldwide a month, yet only 10% are recycled.
There is little regulation of e-waste in the U.S., and much of it is exported to Asia and Africa. Because discarded electronics contain precious materials such as copper, gold and silver—one report says 41 mobile phones contain one gram of gold—many informal recycling yards have sprung up in developing countries where workers are paid low wages to extract these valuable metals from the e-waste. The world's household and industrial waste contains a treasure trove of gold and silver, but it comes at a price.
Simple Solutions to a Big Problem
One solution to this growing global problem is ensuring that your e-waste is recycled properly. Companies such as uSell and Recellular offer cash in exchange for old cell phones. Doug Fernstein, CEO of uSell says the idea was hatched when he realized what a cumbersome process selling old electronics on eBay was. "More current electronics can be refurbished and used to meet consumer demands to buy technology at a discount. Older technology can be stripped of its valuable precious metals, including copper, silver, gold, platinum and other rare minerals."
You simply send uSell your old cell phones, and if they are in working order and able to be refurbished, then you receive a check. Phones that are not in working order are disassembled and stripped for their valuable and precious materials.
Another option is to maintain your electronic devices and only upgrade when necessary. You can also put pressure on major electronics companies to eliminate the worst toxic chemicals from their products and improve their recycling programs by writing letters to the companies and demanding greater responsibility.