Various media outlets are sharing a startling fact from the Consumer Electronics Association: the average American household owns 24 electronic devices. Add this uncomfortable fact from the Environmental Protection Agency: Americans dispose of or recycle 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices every day. Obviously, used electronics are a fast growing component of our national waste stream.
Unlike most of the stuff that I deal with on my litter pick-up walks, electronics are not getting thrown out the car window. In fact, a lot of used electronic devices get into the general trash stream where they do not belong; they should be getting recycled.
Sure, some people recycle their ewaste, and most municipalities provide some method for residents to properly dispose of used electronics, but a lot of it gets tossed because the public, by and large, just doesn’t know what to do. Ewaste recycling efforts aren’t high profile enough yet.
This is actually a rather important environmental and sustainability concern. There’s an awful lot of recyclable stuff in our modern electronic devices, including rare earth metals. Rare earth metals aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, (incidentally, they aren’t actually all that rare) but the process of mining them, like most other mining processes, is dirty and exploitative: that’s a primary reason why we want to reuse them. Think of the rare earths as analagous to a nasty metal that I blogged about in a prior post: lead. In this country, we don’t really need any more dirty lead mining and smelting because we recover most of the waste lead and reuse it.
Just like lead recycling, concerted efforts to reuse the components of our old electronics could help to reduce the need for rare earth mines and smelting works. Unfortunately, we aren’t recycling our electronics: at least not enough.
According to the PBS piece (above linked), there are 500 million old cell phones sitting in drawers, and that’s just the cell phones. I’m sure nobody actually counted those cell phones, it’s an estimate, but this is a portion of the waste stream that can rather easily be reduced and exploited. We’ve got a kaleidoscope of electronic devices these days, and they don’t last all that long.
Honestly, how many old electronic devices do you have hanging around the home? They’re legion in my home. How many have you thrown out with the trash? Too many, I’m guessing. Landfills aren’t the proper ending place for ewaste.
As is par for government problem solving efforts everywhere, public information campaigns and efforts to increase the recycling of electronics are behind the curve; but they’re improving.
Locally, Islip Town recognized the problem and has responded with a time honored answer: they’ve designated an ewaste day. That’s a dedicated day when you can throw out used electronics: you can leave used electronics out at the curb on the last Wednesday of the month. They’ve also added ‘ewaste’ drop off containers at some public facilities and posted information about the topic on the Town’s official website:
The Town is now collecting E-Waste (computers, monitors, printers, electronic games, etc.) curbside at no charge to residents. Residents are encouraged to bring electronic material in need of disposal to the curb with their recyclable materials on the last Wednesday of each month. Residents may also drop off material at the Multi-Purpose Recycling Facility located on Lincoln Avenue in Holbrook, Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 2:45 pm.
This is a big improvement over the previous recycling rules, where you had to bring your old computers and electronics to the recycling center, fill out paperwork, and leave it there. Few residents bothered.
The other shoe that needs to drop is a well purposed public information campaign that highlights the importance of recycling our growing stream of used electronics. This should be a locally driven nationwide effort.