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Do you remember your first smartphone? What about your first MP3 player? Your first computer? Here’s the big question: do you know where they are now? There was a time when you couldn’t wait to get your hands on those products. Then a better device came along and last year’s models were forgotten. But all of your old computers, devices and gadgets still exist somewhere, in some form. So what exactly happens to all of those electronics when you throw them out?
The answer, of course, begins with how you dispose them. Unfortunately, many people just throw these devices away. The EPA estimated that trashed electronics, including everything from computers to laser toners, added up to 4.6 million tons in American landfills in 2000 alone. All of these devices contain heavy metals and trace amounts of toxic elements that slowly leach into groundwater. E-waste is one of the most toxic types of garbage that the average household produces.
If you were more eco-conscious, you may have taken your old devices to a recycling center. There, we would like to believe that men in white lab coats can transform old products into new ones or somehow melt that computer monitor down and pour off every element for reuse in something else.
Here’s what probably actually happened. If your device was in good condition and the model was still being sold new, it might have been refurbished and resold. More likely, a few expensive components were removed and the rest was simply trashed. Unfortunately, the remaining e-waste was then exported to developing nations. In the EU, this is technically illegal, though it still goes on constantly. The US allows this practice freely, and recycling companies are able to generate small profits from the sale.
Eventually, electronic waste arrives in a landfills in Africa, India, China or a few other sites in Asia. There, low-income workers and even children will sort the components, trying to extract any possible value from copper, iron, heavy metals, or precious metals used in electronic circuitry. Most workers will eke out a living this way and whatever basic materials they can separate will be reused in making future devices. The problem with this system is that it is wreaking havoc on both the environment and the workers. E-waste is exported because industrialized countries have controls on how electronic waste can be handled. The cheaper alternative for companies, therefore, is to send it to places where the environment and human capital can be exploited. The sites in developing nations where e-waste is processed have now affected entire regions. Groundwater is no longer drinkable in many places and the health of locals has also been damaged.
So what can you do to minimize your environmental impact? First, try using electronic devices as long as possible or see if you can avoid replacing them with every new generation. Second, when it’s time to dispose of a computer or gadget, try reselling to someone else. You can save money, and someone can enjoy using it for a little big longer. You could also buy recycled products, like printer cartridges, from a credible source such as Inkpal. Finally, never throw gadgets away—look for a certified recycler. In some cases, you may need to pay a small fee for disposal, but often you can recycle for free or even get a benefit in a few cases. Research online to make sure that the recycler uses credible and responsible disposal. With a little work and forethought, your electronic devices don’t need to be part of the damaging global impact of e-waste.