Simply junking electronics is not only wasteful, it can seep toxins into the water supply.

According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, in 2005 the U.S. generated 2.6 million tons of e-waste [source] -- of which only 12.6 percent was recycled.  That amounts to 14.6 pounds of unrecycled e-waste per American on average.

I. The Race to Recycle

But the U.S. doesn't live with this inordinate amount of high-tech refuse.  Instead it ships 90 percent of it to Nigeria and China, often illegally.  The e-waste trade creates some troubling social dilemmas -- for example it brings much needed money to impoverished regions in China and Africa, but at the same time many of the workers lack the tools and safety equipment to safely recycle the materials, or the knowledge to understand the health hazards of smelting used electronics.  

Many workers develop respiratory issues and other health problems.  Worse still, local water supplies have become contaminated with lead, leading to mental retardation and infertility among local children.

Tech trash
The U.S.'s habit of shipping tech trash overseas brings money to impoverished region, but often the cost in human health outweighs the gains. [Image Source: Jack Dempsey/AP]

The only "real" solution is to step up reuse and local recycling efforts.

One region that's rising to the occasion is the state of Oregon.  Oregonians recycled 26 million pounds of e-waste (13 thousand metric tons) under the state-wide "Oregon E-Cycles Program" in 2011.  This year the program is aiming for 27 million pounds -- 7 pounds per person.

The program is funded an zero-expense to the taxpayer by assessing device manufacturers with small fees, which are used to recycle the returned electronics in a responsible fashion.  Three device manufacturers participate as contract recyclers and another state contractor is also involved.  The program is managed by the The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and has been a resounding success, posting several years of successive growth in collections.

Portland, Oregon
Oregon is recycling nearly half its citizens e-waste. [Image Source: City of Portland]

Meanwhile, far across the globe in South Africa's largest city, Johannesberg, a top trash collector, Pikitup, is working to step up in-house recycling.  South Africa collects 1.4 million tons of trash annually -- 2.8 billion pounds of trash.  Of this massive haul, approximately 10 percent is junk electronics.

Pikitup communications manager Pansy Oyedele says that her company was throwing away a treasure trove before it started recycling.  She comments, "People generally don't know that much of this e-waste can be recycled. A perfect example is the steel, aluminium and copper, which can be stripped away from old computers, and then reused in newer models."

Recycling a ton of high grade electronics can cut 4 tons of carbon emissions and can yield between 100 g and 10 kg of gold.  A kg of gold is worth $50,000+ USD on today's market so that means recyclers can make millions in gold alone from e-waste recycling.

II. Reuse Also Critical, Has Potential for Quicker Break-Even 

But recycling efforts aren't always the best fit.  Reuse has also taken center stage as society tries to cut e-waste.  Many consumers abandon working devices that other consumers would happily purchase.  Recycling is profitable, but has significant overhead.  Reuse, by contrast has virtually no overhead, other than inventory and sales costs.

Grocery totes aren't the only reusable items -- electronics can easily be reused in most cases.
[Image Source: Smallfire]

Both strategies spare local people in impoverished regions from the health hazards of unsafe disposal.  And both cut down on the release of halogen fire retardants and lead from local landfills into the water supply.

E-Waste is a global problem, both from a production and a processing perspective.  Even in relatively "green" state like Oregon, nearly half of people's electronics waste still goes unrecycled.

But industry sponsored programs, along with private-public partnerships between industry, local government, and consumers are slowly reshaping the way the U.S. and its foreign peers deal with their aged electronics.  As these efforts consider to expand the U.S. may eventually get to the point where it no longer has to smuggle it's tech trash overseas.  And in the process it will likely generate a number of high tech and skilled trade jobs.

Sources: State of Oregon, IT Web

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