By Bob Akers
Another year is over, and we’re all picking up and putting away after the holiday season. Sadly, one of our most exciting and joyful times of the year is also an environmental nightmare.
We Americans love shiny new products. We lust after the latest thing, and consumer electronics are a prime example of our need for the newest gadget. We often discard perfectly functional products for new ones that have features or capabilities that — if we’re being honest — we will never use.
The Consumer Technology Association estimates $222.7 billion in consumer electronic sales in 2015 and $228.8 billion in sales for 2016. These projections do not even include business purchases.
Clearly, we love new electronics, but what are we doing with the old ones? Unfortunately, electronics recycling is still a rare occurrence in our country. Finding a company that actually recycles your electronics with the environment and community in mind is just as rare.
Your old electronics often can be useful to others. Retired computers can be refurbished and given new life to serve a low-income student, a start-up business or a non-profit organization. Sometimes, all an older computer needs to be useful is a little more RAM or a larger hard drive. Many cast-off computers are perfect for home use — for searching the Internet, checking e-mail or keeping family budget records. The latest, greatest, high-powered computer is wasted on these simple tasks. Unfortunately, many retired machines go into storage because we don’t know what to do with them.
There is a great need for good refurbished electronics. Here in Kansas City, Surplus Exchange is partnering with ConnectHomeKC to provide refurbished computers to those who do not have access to computers or the Internet. So, an electronic donation can help close the digital divide, change a young or old person’s life, assist non-profit organizations and provide a life-line for a new small business.
When any electronic product is beyond its useful life, it should be properly recycled. I still see, on a weekly basis, everything from televisions to computers sitting at curbside. These products contain toxins that should never be put into landfills, and they often contain materials that can be recovered and reused. Lead, phosphor, barium, chromium, beryllium, mercury and PBDE are all common toxins found in electronics. If placed in a landfill, these toxins can reach ground water. Yet, we still bury them for future generations to deal with.
Along with toxins, we unknowingly bury reusable materials. Gold, silver, palladium and copper are common in electronics. These metals are harvested through hard–rock mining, one of the most environmentally damaging industries on the planet. If we bury 5,000 tons of computers in one year, we potentially bury 650 pounds of gold, 3,500 pounds of silver, 39,500 pounds of copper and 200 pounds of palladium. It takes 350,000 tons of earth moved to harvest one ton of gold – yet we’ve thrown a quarter ton of gold away without a thought.
Electronics can be recycled through certified recycling companies. Unfortunately, there are companies claiming to be “green” that are simply waste brokers. The bulk of our “e-waste” ends up in underdeveloped countries being burned in pits or smelted over open fires, harming the humans involved as well as our planet.
When you replace an electronic product, please recycle it as soon as possible. Recycle only with certified recyclers; demand information on where your items will go downstream and proof that your e-waste is being properly recycled.
Bob Akers is executive director of The Surplus Exchange, a local non-profit electronic recycling/reuse and business waste reduction organization that is certified by the Basel Action Network e-Steward program.