“A mountain that never stops growing.” What to know about e-waste left behind by your gadgets

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By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN Business

If you have one or more drawers full of old gadgets and wires, you’re not alone.

Decades of pressure from the tech industry to “innovate or die” has led to a long list of useful and flashy household tech products, but many of those same devices also need to be replaced at about the same rapid pace as new technology emerges. .

The result of this so-called planned obsolescence, combined with a limited number of options to repair older devices over the years, is a tsunami of electronic waste, also known as e-waste. And the fallout goes far beyond the headache of figuring out what to do with the hidden clutter inside your home.

“Planned obsolescence only makes things worse. People now expect to have a new computer every three or four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog group. “It’s a mountain that keeps growing.”

The most recent data from the United Nations indicates that the world generated 53.6 tonnes of electronic waste in 2019, of which only 17.4% was recycled. The burden and harm of e-waste often falls on people in developing countries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an “undetermined quantity of used electronics is being shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or manage these materials appropriately”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that the booming disposal and treatment of e-waste can lead to a range of “adverse health effects in children”, including changes in the lung function, DNA damage and an increased risk of certain chronic diseases such as cancer. and cardiovascular disease later in life.

Additionally, there are more than 18 million children and adolescents “actively engaged” in the informal e-waste industry, the WHO has warned. Children and teenagers are often used to scouring mountains of electronic waste in search of valuable materials such as copper and gold “because their little hands are more dexterous than those of adults”, the WHO said.

The e-waste issue is “a global environmental justice issue,” Puckett said. “It’s about preventing rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technologies on developing countries.”

The growing environmental crisis is now attracting the attention of lawmakers from Europe to the United States, as well as communities in developing countries where e-waste has historically been outsourced.

Last month, EU officials approved a new law requiring all phones and electronic devices to use a brand-independent standard charger, with the potential to limit the number of different wires the average consumer needs to own. Three progressive US lawmakers in a letter urged the United States to follow suit.

The senses. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said the new EU policy “has the potential to significantly reduce e-waste and help consumers who are tired of having to rummage through drawers full of tangled chargers to find a compatible one or buy a new one,” in a letter to the US Commerce Secretary.

For now, however, regulation regarding e-waste exists primarily at the state level and there is little signs that federal policy is moving forward in the near future. In its absence, it’s still up to consumers — and businesses — to step up and find better ways to deal with old electronics.

What consumers and businesses can do about it

When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he had know what to do with hundreds of outdated corporate computers. Today, as executive director of the non-profit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group trying to tackle the e-waste crisis by strengthening cooperation between government, the private sector and consumers.

“Electronic waste is the result of not planning the product through its life cycle,” Dehmey said. “We are simply reacting to a problem that we created years ago. And so if we want to get past this thing, we have to think about these things upstream – what we design and what we, as consumers, also buy.

To accomplish this, SERI has introduced and oversees its own certification standards for e-waste recycling that ensure facilities properly dispose of e-waste. It also organizes events for businesses and other stakeholders and engages in advocacy work to pressure businesses and governments to adopt more sustainable approaches to developing electronics.

“We need to find ways to use [an electronic device] longer, fix it, reuse it,” Dehmey said, noting that this will require mindset shifts from consumers and businesses.

In recent months, there have been reasons for optimism on this front. Rising e-waste has led to increased pressure on manufacturers to ease restrictions on repair devices for individuals and independent repair shops in a push known as the ” right to reparation”. Last year, President Joe Biden passed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules requiring companies to allow DIY repairs, and the FTC pledged to “eradicate” illegal repair restrictions .

Today, a handful of tech companies have launched initiatives to help fix old gadgets. Earlier this year, Apple and Samsung launched their self-service repair stores, offering parts to users looking for DIY solutions for their smartphones. Google has also promised that parts to repair Pixel phones will be available to the public later this year.

Various coalitions have also sprung up in recent years to give consumers the option of disposing of their devices responsibly. Puckett helped launch the e-Stewards e-waste recycling initiative, for example, which certifies and audits electronics recyclers to ensure they dispose of e-waste properly using “very rigorous standards.”

With this tool, consumers can search for nearby recycling centers. SERI also offers an online tool to find a certified recycling centre.

Jeff Seibert, the chief provocateur (yes, that’s his real title) at SERI, also recommends consumers check with their local municipality to see if they have a designated plan for recycling e-waste. A handful of US retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that allow consumers to bring in electronic waste for recycling in the absence of a broader infrastructure. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer credits or free recycling in exchange for trading in used gadgets.

Before opting to donate or recycle used electronics, the EPA recommends considering upgrading a computer’s hardware or software instead of buying an entirely new product. If you decide to recycle, the EPA urges consumers to remove any batteries that may need to be recycled separately. The agency says recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in one year. For every million cell phones recycled, the agency says 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.

Outside of those options, Seibert is simply urging consumers to start thinking about electronics like we think about cars: we don’t throw away our vehicles when we need new tires or the windshield cracks.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we have to give them the resources to be able to do that, and it’s still a work in progress.”

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