A refrigerator used to be a place where you merely kept your food cold, but now there are smart refrigerators that know your habits and where you shop. A radio doesn’t just play radio stations anymore; now it holds your personal playlists, your GPS and your toll pass for the highway. And a watch does far more than tell time — it can track how far you’ve walked today, order a rideshare and purchase all kinds of items.

“Many of the smart home appliances, whether it’s water meters or security camera, even things like lawn sprinklers, often have wireless connections and therefore electronics embedded into the equipment,” says Bill Long, executive vice president of All Green Electronics in North Carolina.

All of this smart technology has far-reaching implications for society, and that includes recycling.

Electronics Are Everywhere

If you’re not in the recycling business, you probably haven’t thought about the additional complexity making everything “smart” has brought to the process. The old ways of recycling certain items no longer apply. Now, electronics recycling is a bigger piece of the pie, because almost everything has an electronic component to it. Recyclers who previously never worried about data are finding themselves faced with making sure everything is secure.

Is your home now smarter than you? Photo: Adobe Stock

“I see it as an opportunity for recyclers more than anything else,” says Billy Johnson, liaison to the Electronics Division of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). “Security and destruction are a real opportunity for recyclers to provide a great service. A lot of our members do this currently, and there are a number of different levels of protection that can be provided, especially with phones and computers.”

Conversations about recycling electronics are now spread across materials: ferrous, nonferrous, rubber, electronics, paper and plastic. Why? Because electronics are popping up in all kinds of places, from RFID chips in rubber tires to lithium-ion batteries in birthday cards. Those little batteries can be dangerous, causing fires, which is something a paper recycler who receives those birthday cards must consider, when maybe that wasn’t previously a concern.

The future is here. And it’s complicated.

Sometimes, Bigger Is Better

Not only has innovation led to some pretty cool developments over the past decade (exhibit No. 1: your smartphone), it also has upsides for the planet. Smaller products usually use fewer materials than larger ones, and businesses are recognizing the value of offering items with a sustainable message.

However, the challenges with recycling these products in a way that’s safe, profitable and environmentally responsible are considerable. “There are several big problems: the products are getting smaller and more powerful, there’s less material in them to actually recycle, and they’re harder to break apart to get any value out of them at all,” Johnson says.

To equal the value of the materials inside one desktop computer would take thousands of cell phones. If you were a recycler, would you rather collect 100 computers or 100,000 phones for the same profit?

Not only are smartphones difficult to disassemble, but they don’t have many valuable parts to recycle. Photo: Adobe Stock

“Many products that used to have positive value because of precious metals are now approaching the stage where it’s an expense to recycle the products efficiently,” Long says. “Components are soldered on and can’t be replaced, and there’s a need for very different tools and special toolkits to pry open the different parts.”

In some cases, he adds, the small size even makes items impossible to disassemble.

Forward Thinking

To Johnson’s third point about the problems in recycling electronics including disassembly difficulty, many manufacturers don’t design their products with the end of their useful life in mind — and rather than create a product that can be relatively easily repaired, they’d rather you buy a new model instead. Far more innovation is put into creating the next big must-have product than it is into how to responsibly dispose of that product once it becomes obsolete.

Even those that claim to be green are sometimes only thinking about their eco-footprint on the front end of things. “When manufacturers from all stripes, from cars to electronics to birthday cards, start talking about how sustainable they are, they really need to think a little bit bigger than ‘We made this from 30 percent recycled paper,’” Johnson says. “They need to think about ‘Where is my product ultimately going to end up?’”

In addition to that, Johnson says, responsible manufacturing includes working with recyclers on end-of-life options. “Manufacturers have the responsibility to help warn the recycler about what’s coming down the road and what we should do with it,” he says. “When we get new gadgets, it becomes a quick, on-the-fly ‘What do we do with it?’” With more advance notice, recyclers could formulate a better plan for how to deal with items that didn’t even exist six months ago.

Safety First

Manufacturers aren’t the only ones who should be paying more attention — consumers should know that the way they dispose of electronics matters. Not only for the environment, of course, but also for safety reasons. Lithium-ion batteries, which are found in everything from smartphones and laptops to automobiles and power tools, pose a serious fire hazard when improperly handled.

Battery fires can be serious, which is something recyclers have to keep in mind. Photo: Adobe Stock

“There could be an electronic discharge that fundamentally would create a fire, especially if it catches on fire in a shredder with a lot of other combustible material,” Long says. “One of the challenges is fires with lithium-ion batteries are very difficult to extinguish. First responders and police are now being advised that the only safe way to handle the fire of an electric vehicle is to clear the area 25 feet around the accident and allow the fire to burn out. Traditional firefighting methods aren’t effective.”

Learn how to safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries here.

Is Your Secret Safe with Your Watch?

Of course, all those smart gadgets know a whole lot more than we might be comfortable with — and certainly more than you might want someone else to know. You’ve probably considered how it would be detrimental for someone to get a hold of your computer or phone with access to your email, photos and sensitive documents, but there’s so much more that might not have crossed your mind: a garage door opener that knows when you’re away from the house, a GPS system that contains details on your daily commute. When Johnson took his wife’s bike in for maintenance, the technician made recommendations for new tires and an upgraded cassette based on data he saw on the bike’s computer about where she rides.

Just how secure is the cloud? Photo: Adobe Stock

Just remember that “when you destroy data in one place, it doesn’t necessarily mean you destroy it everywhere,” Johnson says. “When the information is in the cloud, now you’re starting to deal with a bigger issue — it’s out of the realm of the recycler at that point.”

Such are the issues of modern life. On the bright side, smart gadgets could be a good thing for recycling rates. People worried about privacy might be more apt to seek out a recycler with a good reputation for data destruction — which could ultimately lead to more electronics being recycled. If more electronics are recycled, more systems will be developed for making the process as efficient as possible, thus making it even easier to recycle in the future. And maybe, just maybe, manufacturers will wise up to their impact on the earth, putting as much care and consideration into designing products that are meant to be disassembled and repurposed as they do into marketing and selling said products.

Until then, it’s up to recyclers to get smart about handling smart gadgets in the most responsible way possible.

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. ISRI is one of these partners.

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.