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OM in the News: Recycling Tech Waste

January 2, 2015
Responsible recyclers try to dispose of as little material as possible and reuse anything that still works

Responsible recyclers try to dispose of as little material as possible and reuse anything that still works

 Maybe you replaced old electronics over the holidays or you’re just sweeping out the old and ushering in the New Year. Trying to recycle your old technology the right way is becoming easier by the day, writes The New York Times (Jan. 1, 2015). Stores like Best Buy and Staples now offer programs to take back old gadgets and recycle them. Still, most old devices end up in the trash. Americans alone throw away 2-3 million tons of electronics yearly according to the EPA. With the life span of devices shrinking (the average phone is replaced every 18 months) the problem is growing worse.

The toxic waste from all those tossed gadgets causes terrible damage to soil, water and people. And the U.N. calls electronic waste the “fastest growing waste stream in the world.”  The recycling industry first began moving toward more responsible practices about 10 years ago, but the mission had changed from purely recycling to a greater emphasis on intercepting usable tech. If you recycle for raw materials, you get a portion of that product. But if you can reuse a cellphone, that’s the most environmentally beneficial of all.

To be certified, recyclers that collect e-waste have to show that they’ve tried hard to reuse products that come in — not just stripping them down and selling off individual parts, but trying to resell an entire phone, computer, printer or game console. The second level in the recycling hierarchy is to find parts and components that can be reused in other products. Touch screens can be sold to toy makers, for example, or circuit boards can be used in other computerized devices. And if the entire item can’t be sold, recovering heavy metals like gold, palladium and other raw materials inside electronics is a form of “urban mining.”

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Relate this article to the Triple Bottom Line discussed in Supplement 5.

2. How can electronic companies design and produce for sustainability?

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