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What is E-Waste?

In 2009, we disposed of 2.37 million tons of electronic gadgets; including TV’s, printers, scanners, keyboards, cell phones and mice (both with and without tails). Across the globe, we dispose of about 20 to 50 million tons every year.
Did you know that for every million cell phones recycled, we can recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver and 33 pounds of palladium?

Why recycle?

I can readily think of three reasons to recycle. 1) Efficiency, 2) Pollution, and 3) Scarcity. Let’s start with the first, efficiency. It takes a certain amount of energy, both human and potential, to mine and refine raw material. It is far more efficient to “mine” materials from a right vein of material (copper from a cell phone) than it is to try and get it from rock. I can imagine a prospector from a hundred years ago looking for a rich source of copper. That is defined as rock that has between 0.5 and 1% copper. Now imagine telling that prospector that we throw away devices that contain about 12% copper. He would think we were crazy to be discarding such a rich source of minerals. Here is a figure of merit, recycling one million laptops saves enough energy to power 3,500 homes for a year. Not only does it just save energy, a scarce resource itself, but energy cost money. If we are inefficient about making our toys, they will cost more.
Second, many of our dearly beloved electronics contain significant amounts of lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, not to mention brominated flame retardants and PVC plastics. We think of many of these raw materials as existing in the environment, so it does not seem much of a problem if we put them back into the environment. In nature, they are concentrated in ore bodies and hidden underground and away from people and water and food sources. If we disperse them around our environment, they begin to interact with our water and food, even air in some cases (see dioxin concentration), and begin to affect our health and our quality of life. The level of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies has exceeded international standards of safety for cadmium copper, nickel and lead. Think about that the next time you sit down to dinner.
Third, we live on a planet of finite resources. It is a big planet, but the resources it holds are finite. If we continually take those resources from areas of high concentration and disperse them to areas of low concentration, it will become increasingly hard (and expensive) to recover or mine them. As we deplete those rich ore bodies, imagine how difficult it will be to recover more of that material in the future.

Not new ground

This is not a new idea. Most municipalities have recycling programs where we can drop off household e-waste for free, several times a year. I encourage you to take advantage of these programs. Doing so will reduce the cost of future electronic devices, preserve the quality of life we desire and conserve our resources so that we can continue to enjoy the technological advances we desire.

Final thoughts

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