About a year ago, our local trash collection service sent out a reminder that they would no longer pick up old, discarded televisions during weekly pick-up. Of course, they provided a list of electronics recycling venues that would take someone’s television. Not surprisingly though, most people ignored all of this information and within a short month the neighborhood was dotted with abandoned televisions on the sidewalk and neighbors angry at the city for not taking their old television away. But in truth there was a very good reason why the city won’t pick up televisions, and that reason is the same reason that you should always take the extra effort to make sure all of your old and defunct electronics go to an electronics recycling specialist rather than get dumped in the trash.

What Happens to Old Electronics When They End Up in a Landfill?

While the context of this article is the story about our neighborhood’s graveyard of old televisions, we do want to be clear that the issue at hand isn’t just televisions. Old computers, cell phones and electronics in general are imperative to keep out of landfills. Almost all of those electronics contain both toxic metals and flame retardants that do permanent environmental damage when they seep into the ground water via a landfill. Sadly, even the best constructed landfills will still experience some degree of ground water leakage. It’s the same as “throwing away” pharmaceuticals or beauty products. There are simply chemical pollutants in those products that you don’t want impacting your environment.

Ok! Easy Fix! Take Your Electronics to a Specialty Recycler! Right? … Maybe Not.

Well, right now you’re feeling amazing because you always collect your electronics and take them to a specialty e-waste recycler! But there’s an important part of this loop that you need to close. You will want to ensure that the e-waste recycler you’re using is doing responsible recycling. Did you know that, according to a report by NPR:

“The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it,” says Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which works to keep toxic waste out of the environment.

In the countries where the e-waste materials are taken, a profit center is derived from disassembling the items for the profitable (and toxic) metal parts. That means that workers, mostly women and children, are breathing in the toxins from these parts while not wearing protective gear, and the toxins themselves are making their way into the air source. So while you may feel good about having taken your electronic waste to a specialty recycler, be sure to evaluate whether that ecycler really kept the deadly toxins from entering the planet. And consider whether they’re taking advantage of developing nations and their labor force.

Ok, Geez. So What Should You Do with E-Waste?

Not to be a downer, but your hands are a bit tied here. The truth is that because e-cycling has developed into such a lucrative business, it’s almost impossible not to think that at least a portion of what you deliver to the electronics recycler will end up on a container ship to a developing nation and seep its way back into the environment. But there are some steps that you can take to reduce the damaging impact of e-waste.

  • Look for E-Cyclers Focused on Re-Use: Re-use is almost always a better option than recycle. If you can, look for companies that are actively checking to see if your items can be reused.
  • Generate Less E-Waste: You don’t need every upgrade, every time! Trust us. You need to replace your electronics when it’s necessary, not whenever the consumer marketing machine tells you to. Create less e-waste and you’ll create less toxic waste.

In the end, ask questions. Call around. See which companies can clearly answer your questions about what happens to the materials you send them.

The truth is that there is no perfect answer, though we trust that someday there will be. However, fundamentally, you’re always better off not leaving your old television sitting out on your curb so that your neighbors get angry about having to look at your trash!

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Photo Credit: Sascha Pohflepp via Flickr