Signs of Sustainability: Electronic waste – a growing challenge

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By Michael Troutman, Robin Elliott

 

The US produces more electronic waste, or “e-waste,” than any other country: 9.4 million tons annually and only 12.5 percent is recycled. E-waste makes up two percent of the waste stream, but 70 percent of the hazardous waste in landfills. Increased access to affordable electronics has changed our way of life, some may say for the better. The question remains: how do we safely and responsibly handle these items once we’re done with them?

While many electronic products are affordable to the average consumer, they are costly to extract from mines and produce. If not reused or recycled, these limited resources can be lost for good. Toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium are common in modern electronics, making them dangerous to put in landfills. Finally, electronics are a growing sector of consumer products with an ever-shrinking product lifecycle. This has created a surge in production of potentially hazardous waste that is challenging to manage

Can you throw away electronics in New York State?

The 2010-enacted NYS E-Waste Recycling & Reuse Act made it illegal to trash computers, televisions, video players, and various related peripherals. The DEC clarifies the law’s “computers” e-waste category to include tablets and e-readers as well as traditional desktops and laptops.

For those concerned about these environmental impacts, there are options. Many e-waste collection sites and recyclers will also accept cell phones. If a phone can’t be reused and resold, it can likely be passed into a recycling stream where someone will pay for the device. A buyer will do this because of the potential for recovering materials like precious metals, worth more than what they paid for the device after extraction.

What responsible options exist for recycling or legally disposing of used electronics?

A pre-existing law, the New York State Wireless Recycling Act, requires wireless service providers like Verizon and AT&T who sell phones within the state to collect and then take steps to ensure each phone is “recycled, reused or disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.” So citizens may bring or mail back their cell phones to providers but cell phones, smart or otherwise, aren’t covered equipment under the e-waste law.

Private companies may also register with the state to help divert e-waste into reuse or recycling streams. Sometimes this is in partnership with the very manufacturers of the equipment. These options are growing, such as the cell phone-accepting stations at malls or other public shopping sites.

Many electronics can be taken to Tompkins County’s Recycling and Solid Waste Center’s Electronics Plus area for recycling or legal disposal, sometimes for an associated fee.

What are the best options for used electronics?

The best possible option for an unwanted electronic is to keep it in use.

Is it better to recycle or reuse? Recycling is extremely energy-intensive and is not the green alternative it may seem. There is currently very little domestic e-waste recycling - often, downstream e-waste recyclers send materials overseas for the actual extractive recycling processes, with energy expended and waste generated through transportation and processing, and some percentage of the remaining components are likely trashed after processing.

Sometimes manufacturers and wireless providers have added barriers to reuse; Apple devices, for instance, remain locked to a former owner’s iCloud account. This locks control of the device to that owner and without the owner releasing it; not even Apple can bypass the lock. So please note, if you donate your device for reuse, find out how to unlock it first!

Founded in 2010, Finger Lakes ReUse’s eCenter computer repair and refurbishment program accepts many kinds of used electronics and offers confidential wiping services to make sure your data isn’t passed on to the next user. As a licensed Microsoft refurbisher, the eCenter will sanitize data from laptop and desktop computers, install a new operating system, and sell systems at affordable prices back to the community. This serves to increase access to electronics that are increasingly becoming required for all citizens to have access to employment and other basic needs.

Processing electronic devices to be reused is less energy-intensive and more labor-intensive than traditional recycling, and is a great way to gain valuable tech skills. Finger Lakes ReUse has a job-training program called ReSET (ReUse Skills & Employment Training), offering free job skills training in technology. Participants learn about electronics and computers while helping to process the volumes of computers and peripherals donated to the Ithaca ReUse Center and Triphammer ReUse Center daily.

Have questions about Finger Lakes ReUse’s eCenter policies or offerings? Find out more at ithacareuse.org/ecenter or email eCenter Program Coordinator Lonnie Hinkle at lonnie@fingerlakesreuse.org.

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org. Michael Troutman is the former eCenter Coordinator, and Robin Elliott is the Philanthropy Coordinator, for Finger Lakes ReUse.

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