What do you do with an old device?
Some people give it away as a hand-me-down. Some stash it into their drawers. Some toss it straight into the bin.
Out of sight, out of mind? What really happens to your once-beloved gadgets in the end?
Let’s take an honest look at the electronic waste problem today. We’ll explore why e-waste is becoming a big problem in recent years, and delve into the recycling work involved in managing unwanted devices.
Lastly, we’ll also talk about actions you can take to reduce your personal e-waste.
Let’s get into it.
First, What is E-Waste?
E-waste refers to the electronic products that we throw away, or no longer use. Television sets, smartphones, home appliances, office computers … Every old tech item that was ever replaced becomes electronic waste.
In 2019, we produced 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste worldwide – an overwhelming amount equivalent to the weight of 5,800 Eiffel Towers.
How have we gotten ourselves into so much e-waste?
Why E-Waste Is Increasing
Let’s reflect on our society as a whole.
First it was “Throwaway Living” in the 1950s. Disposables grew and human convenience took importance over environmental consequences.
Then the 80s, we experienced the decade of materialism – Shop ‘Till You Drop was our phrase.
In essence, these two lifestyles combine and evolve into our consumer culture today. We want greater, newer, sooner.
Expensive price tags do not deter people from buying new models. We have a variety of mobile package deals from carriers and zero-interest installment plans ready to be signed.
Combined with higher levels of income, it’s temptingly easy to step into the bright, welcoming store and bring home a new device.
If we ever hesitate, businesses and their well-funded marketing campaigns coax us with these friendly words: Treat yourself. You deserve it.
Ironically, the novelty of new purchases wears off quickly. Our tech lifestyle has therefore become a fast-moving conveyor belt of “Buy, Use, Discard, Replace.”
Wonder why many smartphone batteries start weakening after 2 years? Planned obsolescence is the reason.
How it started: In the 1920s, light bulbs used to last 2,500 hours. However, a cartel involving companies like Philips and General Electric modified the bulbs so that their lifespans were cut by half.
This forced customers to buy the products more frequently, thus profiting the companies.
The business tactic persists until today. Like an open secret. And consumer culture encourages it. Replacing old things with new ones – as long as we like and can afford them – is the norm.
But all these resources discarded before their lifetime – at whose expense?
The Harmful Impact of E-Waste
The majority of electronic waste ends up in landfills and incinerators.
In landfills, toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and cadmium eventually seep back into soil and groundwater. Absorbed by plants and consumed by animals, these invisible components find their way back into the food on our plates.
For incinerated e-waste, the burning process releases the same cocktail of cancerous chemicals into the air.
Most of us may not feel the impact immediately because the burning and the landfills are at a place far, far away from our homes.
But for a moment, picture the Earth as a gigantic glass dome. These hazardous substances are constantly accumulating within the same dome that we live in.
The problem is not that far away as we like to imagine.
The E-Waste Recycling Process
The first step to cutting down e-waste is proper disposal – that is, recycling.
Recycling ensures that materials both rare (e.g. gold, silver) and common (e.g. iron) are recovered to produce new devices again. Therefore, the process is also sometimes called “urban mining”.
There are 3 main stages in the recycling process:
- Collection of e-waste
- Sorting and dismantling of e-waste
- Material recovery
Let’s use our constant tech companion: smartphones, as our example. What happens when you get rid of old phones – the eco-friendly way?
Stage 1: Collection of E-Waste
Used cell phones are collected via several routes:
- Smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple have programs to collect old devices back from consumers.
- Trade-in services like GizmoGrind buy used and/or damaged phones from both individuals and businesses. Customers get cash in return.
- Non-profits like Call2Recycle has a list of convenient drop-off locations across the country. People can leave their old phones and batteries there.
Stage 2: Sorting, Dismantling, And More Sorting
Collected devices are sorted into functional and non-functional. This may be done by trade-in services, or the recycling center itself.
Usable phones are shipped off to be refurbished and sold. Damaged ones are then manually dismantled by recycling employees.
Here, valuable but hazardous parts are carefully removed. Otherwise, components like lithium-ion batteries can explode into flames if fed directly into machines during the next crushing and shredding process.
After the devices are broken into small pieces, materials are further filtered into plastics, glass, as well as high and low grades of metal.
Plastics, for example, may be sorted on conveyor belts by hand. Ferrous (i.e. iron-containing) metals can be obtained using magnets.
Stage 3: Material Recovery
Finally, the sorted pieces are sent to smelters to extract their pure elements. Aluminum-rich components head to aluminum smelters; ferrous metals go to steel smelters to recover iron, and so on.
Once the raw materials are obtained, they are sold to tech manufacturers and used to make new devices again.
Why Recycling Isn’t Fully Solving E-Waste Yet
There’s a problem though. If we’re already recycling, why is the e-waste issue still getting bigger and bigger?
According to the IVL Environmental Research Institute, our average recycling rate is only around 35%. Also, that rate has stayed stagnant since 2009.
What causes low recycling rates?
Electronic products are by nature complex and varied. Sorting and dismantling devices of different shapes and sizes rely heavily on human work.
To get the most yield, recyclers tend to focus on materials like copper and aluminum first. For parts that produce little yield or are too costly to dismantle – they are unfortunately sent to incinerators and landfills as well.
Limited Recycling Technology
Recycling centers do not have the ability to recycle every e-waste under the sun.
For example, phone batteries need to go to specific battery recycling plants – but there are only 4 such factories worldwide. SungEel HiTech, based in South Korea, is one of them. The company takes in phone batteries from 8 countries already.
Therefore, if a local recycling center lacks (1) in-house tech and (2) downstream partners to process certain components, the precious materials in those parts simply can’t be recovered.
As tech production far exceeds end-of-life disposal resources, our system is facing a severe global bottleneck in how e-waste is managed.
How to Reduce Our Personal E-Waste
There’s no denying that our purchases are a big part of the problem, too. As passionate tech users, let’s step up and take responsibility for the devices we own and love.
Here are several ways to reduce our personal e-waste.
Check for Ecofriendly Labels
EPEAT is an international ecolabel for a wide range of electronics, such as computers, mobile phones and televisions.
Managed by the Global Electronics Council, the label’s evaluation criteria include greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain, energy conservation and material selection.
You can download reports from EPEAT’s website to learn more about the products in each category.
Buy Refurbished Phones
Buying from reputable sellers ensures that you have a phone as good as new. Refurbished phones that come from smartphone manufacturers themselves, like Apple, have the same one-year warranty.
Of course, the biggest plus point: paying less. Let’s use iPhone 11 (128GB) as an example.
- Brand-new unit on Apple Official website: $649
- Apple Certified Refurbished unit: $549 (save $100)
- Offered by phone resellers, e.g. Gazelle: $479 – $509 (save up to $170!)
Refurbished phones may had been used, but their lifetime is far from over. Let’s give these worthy devices a second chance and keep them out from the waste pile.
Hold On To Your Devices A Little Longer
To quote from a Forbes piece: buying a new phone every year “makes dollars [for the company] but no sense.”
So, let’s step back from marketing ads who tell us changing phones frequently is necessary.
We know that Apple, for instance, is great at making phones we love. Its impressive iPhone 6 series is the bestselling smartphone model of all time – more than 222 million units were sold worldwide.
Even though it was released 7 years ago, a study by DeviceAtlas found that 17% of Apple device owners are still using their iPhone 6 in 2020. The device evidently stands the test of time.
Imagine if every iPhone 6 user held on to their devices a little longer, too? If we collectively cherished those 222 million units of iPhone 6, we can save up to 31,500 tons of e-waste – that’s the weight of 3 Eiffel Towers already!
Of course, compared to the massive total, the figure can’t salvage the damage in an instant … But the world today has billions of tech users.
Every year, billions of us can choose to love our devices more instead of falling victim to novelty. Let’s save one device at a time.
Recycle Old Phones (and Other Devices) Today
The recycling industry may have its shortcomings. But when our device does reach its full lifespan, we can still give the metals a new life – starting by handing them to the right organizations.
GizmoGrind cover shipping costs so you don’t have to pay anything. Tech experts will also wipe your data so you can be assured that your old device is in safe hands. For businesses, bulk trading solutions are available as well.
For every device eventually sold or recycled, GizmoGrind also partners with OneTreePlanted to grow a tree, giving back to Mother Earth.
Spread the word and start your journey as an ecofriendly tech consumer today. Give your old device a new life – check how much it’s worth now.
‘Electronic waste generated worldwide from 2010 to 2019 (in million metric tons)’, Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, Statista.
‘E-Waste and Raw Materials‘, IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, 2019.
‘Leading Apple iPhone shares based on web usage worldwide from 2019 to 2020, by model’, DeviceAtlas, Statista, 2020.
‘Number of smartphone users worldwide from 2016 to 2023’, Newzoo, Statista, 2020.
‘Projected electronic waste generation worldwide from 2019 to 2030 (in million metric tons)’, Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, Statista.