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The Environmental Impact of E-Waste—and How to Make a Difference

What's the environmental impact of e-waste? Learn how to minimize e-waste, recycle electronics, and shop sustainably.

Written by
Anna Shuster

I love technology. Especially as a student, owning and having easy access to electronics has revolutionized my life and I can’t bear parting with it. Saying goodbye to ride-sharing apps, Google Drive, and Postmates? That's just not going to happen anytime soon. Likewise, technological updates and shiny new phones are going to keep drawing people in.

Technology fads pass quickly or devices need replacing leaving no option but to buy new beloved products. At this point, it’s unavoidable really—especially with the reality of remote work during COVID-19. However, we can be mindful of what we do with our old electronics and choosing to dispose of them in a way that will cause the least amount of harm to the planet.

What is E-Waste?

This term doesn’t really pop up in our common vernacular. When talking about electronics, we usually focus on shiny new advancements and all the additional ease and automation it can add to our life. No one's out there longing for a flip phone to replace their smart phone. However, electronic waste (or e-waste) is the elephant in the room during these conversations.

The issue with electronic waste stems and mostly stays within its related production and disposal. When I found out how many natural resources these relatively small devices are made up of, I was shocked.

Let’s play a little guessing game: how many computers and computer monitors can we make with “1.5 tons of water, 530 lbs of fossil fuel, and 40 pounds of chemicals”? According to The Balance Small Business, just one. I know.

Now let’s put that within the scope of how many people own electronics. Just one year ago, there were 2 billion computers on our planet. And what about cell phones? There have been more cell phones than people on this planet since 2014 and technology is only going to continue to grow. 

Alongside our growing electronics, our e-waste is growing too. We are predicted to have over 52 million tons of e-waste in 2021 and it is predicted to be one of our main sources of waste.  Unlike other kinds of waste, it’s hard to find sustainable swaps for functioning electronics. This isn’t a matter of saran wrap versus beeswax wrap. Therefore, our main way of mitigating this issue relies on progress over perfection (like we like to say here at Brightly) because as mentioned earlier it is just a non-realistic solution to never buy electronics again.

How to Minimize E-Waste

1. Buy Electronics Secondhand

There are a lot of lovely secondhand electronics you can get a hold of for cheaper prices that work just as well new products. Plus, they have the additional benefit of being better for our planet. As you can see, even Amazon and Target have used electronics sections hidden away on their website. Have fun with exploring these different options to find the best deal and product for you.

2. Prolong the Life of Your Electronics

One of the most obvious ways to mitigate the e-waste issue is by buying less and using what we have for longer. Doing this lightens the environmental burden of creating new electronics and destroys the possibility of your electronics being recycled improperly in the process. It's also a pretty obvious way to save money that would otherwise have gone towards replacing your electronics.

One tip to prolong laptop life is to install a larger hard drive, allowing your laptop to handle more use and store more data. You can also google easy online solutions to common electronic problems through websites like Ifixit before declaring your laptop as damaged and looking for new options.

Have electronics beyond repair? You can put your upcycling skills to use and take advantage of its different parts and repurpose them as something else entirely. Just because it may no longer function as a phone doesn’t mean it can’t serve an all-new function. For example, your computer fan can still function as a fan.

Your old iPhone without a SIM card can be saved for international travel to avoid those hefty data fees and will allow you to connect to WiFi to communicate with your loved ones. You can also stay at home and enjoy reusing it as an iPod.

Want some more advanced iPhone hacks? Read up on how to turn your old iPhones into a universal remote or even a car GPS.

If all this is for naught, you can also try to sell the electronic parts or even the broken product in its entirety. You can sell broken electronics for excited techies to disassemble and repurpose themselves on sites like Ebay, Craigslist, or even in local Facebook groups.

3. Read Up on Properly Recycling Electronics

Recycling, in general, is made very confusing (check out this article for some recycling 101). That’s why three-quarters of households just store their unused electronics letting them collect dust. While that’s certainly something I’ve done, and is by far the easiest option, there are so many ways to put these expensive little blocks to use like the ideas I suggested above. Or you can make your way over to a recycling center.

Dropping off your electronics at a recycling center is a great option if you absolutely do not want to cut down on buying new electronics and upcycling parts seems like too much of a hassle. The most important part: make sure that the recycling center has an E-Steward certification. This will ensure that your electronics will be properly disposed of in a way that won’t harm the environment. We have to rely on this E-Steward certification because only 25 states have legislation surrounding e-waste and there are no federal regulations around recycling your electronics.

Despite the lack of federal enforcement, the importance of proper e-waste disposal can not be understated. 70 percent of the hazardous materials in our landfills come from e-waste. The impact of an old iPhone is greater than what one would think.