I was elated a few years ago when I discovered that my town had an electronics recycling drop off point. I was filled with smug satisfaction as I dropped off an ancient computer and a VCR I hadn’t used in almost a decade. I remember driving away from the recycling depot and never giving it a second thought — it was literally out of sight, out of mind.

But, a few weeks ago out of the blue, I started wondering what happened to the electronics I’d so happily dumped into a receiving bin. Where does that e-waste go? How is that processed? Who was processing them and what was the reclaimed material used for? I started digging around like some sort of amateur Nancy Drew, and the answers I found redefined how I looked at recycling — perhaps forever.

E-Waste Exposé

Let’s begin at the beginning, with our voracious appetite for new technology. Smartphones, those ubiquitous devices glued to our hands at every moment, are a perfect example. According to an article in Forbes, 51 percent of iPhone users upgrade their devices every two years, along with 40 percent of android users. Not only that but only 47 percent of iPhone users and 58 percent of their Android-loving counterparts say they’d wait until their phone was entirely obsolete or non-functional before replacing it.

Smashed e-waste
Cellphones like this one eventually become e-waste. Image credit: Matthew Hurst (Flickr)

What this means is not only are most of us we burning through a new smartphone every 24 months but the old ones, the ones hanging around in junk drawers or even headed to electronics recycling, are still perfectly useable technology, but because they’re not the latest and greatest, we’re tossing them to the curb.

It’s not just our teeny-tiny phones, either. American consumers are replacing their ever-larger televisions approximately every four or five years, according to some industry estimates, a time span which may come to more closely resemble the two-year replacement cycle of smartphone users as HDTV technology continues to improve and prices continue to drop.

Phones, TV’s, gaming systems, home computers, laptops, printers, scanners, cameras — our lives are filled with technology from our sleekest devices all the way down to the lowly microwave, and some estimate that fewer than 20 percent of our electronics are recycled.

As we replace these items more and more frequently, they’ve almost become disposable objects. Constructed with a short lifespan in mind (planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence), it’s only a manner of time before they end up in the recycling depot, or worse, the landfill (that is, when they eventually make it there. The EPA estimates that as much as 75 percent of our e-waste is languishing in the nation’s closets and attics, waiting to be disposed of.)

E-Waste Recycling

Let’s assume that we’re discussing an individual who does choose to dispose of their electronics in a responsible way (as we all do, right?),  where on earth do they take it? At the time of writing, 27 states have passed e-waste laws requiring that electronic devices be diverted from landfills and incinerators and disposed of properly at e-waste recycling centers. This is fantastic news!

And, even if you’re in one of the 22 states lacking such progressive environmental legislation you can still access recycling programs through popular big-box electronics retailers like Best Buy and Staples, who offer recycling programs in their stores across the country. Some even offer financial incentives to sweeten the deal, things like discounts on future purchases. (And hey! If you’re not sure where to recycle your electronics, check out our handy recycling guide to find a location in your area!)

E-waste laptops
Laptop e-waste collected at LES Ecology Center. Image credit: Nick Normal (Flickr)

So, you clean out your garage and end up with a box of defunct electronics. You do the right thing, take them to your local recycling center and drop the box off with a smile — what happens next?

Some e-waste recycling centers like the like the Lower East Side Ecology Center inspect all drop-off’s and then repair, refurbish and sell functional electronics that come their way. What can’t be refurbished or repaired is typically wrapped up and transported to a processing plant which removes dangerous components like tube TV screens and batteries. They then shred the remaining items and sort them based on material.

This material sorting is sometimes done by real live humans, but other times space-age optical sorters are used. These employ a laser to decipher differences between plastic, metal, and computer chips, and sorts them into appropriate bins. The bins of materials are then sold to buyers.

On That, We Can All Agree (Maybe)

So far so good, right? Just a happy tale of waste being reused and recycled! Well, here’s where things get murky. Here’s why smug me might have lost her smile, had I known this piece of information so many years ago.

Those human sorters aren’t cheap, nor are the laser beams. And in order to make every dollar count, many e-waste companies choose to export their waste to other countries for processing instead. They do this for the same reason clothing manufacturers do — cheap labor.

Exporting potentially hazardous e-waste to developing countries was made illegal by the Basel Convention, agreed to by 182 states and the entire European Union. Guess who has signed it but not ratified it? That’s right, good ole Uncle Sam. So, the export of e-waste continues.

And, just like the abysmal conditions in sweatshops, e-waste sorters are exposed to horrific working conditions and health hazards. When done in developed countries, e-waste sorting occurs under carefully controlled conditions with appropriate safety precautions in place. But those processing the 50-80 percent of U.S. electronic waste that gets exported aren’t so lucky.

These individuals — often children — work in deplorable conditions, while exposing themselves to harmful levels of toxic chemicals like lead and mercury. This is the dark side of recycling, human beings toiling away in backbreaking conditions to break down and sort our old desktop computers and cell phones.

Scan Your Habits First

What’s the solution to this ugly side of recycling? First of all, examine your purchasing habits. Free yourself from the disposable technology mindset. Invest in your tech, take care of your electronics and plan to use them until they’re obsolete — maybe people will think your ancient cell phone is ironic! (Or vintage!)Second, when it does come time to dispose of your electronics, ask questions. How is your e-waste disposed of, and where is it shipped to? If your recycling facility does ship e-waste overseas consider lobbying your municipality to reconsider this choice.

Finally, remember that purchases — including brand new shiny TV’s — aren’t treats, they’re responsibilities. They come at a cost that goes far beyond their price tag — including the sometimes alarming cost of their disposal, even if you are doing the right thing and recycling.

Our handy recycling search is always a good place to start when looking for e-waste recycling.

Feature image courtesy of takomabibelot (Flickr

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.