A Waste of Waste?

Everyday millions of electronic devices are disposed of into landfill rather than being recycled or refurbished. Our society as a whole is getting better at recycling plastic and cardboard but electronic waste (E-Waste) is something that is still routinely overlooked and it is easy to see why. In most towns and cities across the states it is difficult to find places to dispose of electrical items.  Because of this many, valuable electronic items are thrown into landfill, something that is both dangerous and expensive.

Electrical items contain a many hazardous materials and dangerous chemicals. They are completely safe in the device but when left exposed and crushed on a landfill site these toxins can leak out into the soil. In many cases these substances are poisonous to humans, for example, mercury and arsenic which are commonly found in mobile phones. Other times the materials are highly flammable like lithium batteries found in phones and laptops. The increase in lithium battery usage has made landfill sites significantly more dangerous due to the highly flammable and unstable nature of a battery which will explode if pierced or crushed. In the US alone there is at least one fire per day at a recycling or landfill site caused by a lithium battery exploding. Couple that with a wide variety of other flammable materials nearby and it is easy to see why a fire is a very dangerous event and one that should never be taken lightly.

The second reason that landfilling E-Waste is a problem is that there is still significant value in those items. A whole range of companies have sprung up in the last decade offering to pay for old electronic devices because they know they can recover components within them to reuse or sell. A typical iPhone is estimated to house around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver and 0.015g of palladium. These aren’t huge amounts in themselves but with metals becoming increasingly rare and over 1 billion phones going to waste each year there is a definite market here. So much so in fact that many companies are looking into “landfill mining” which is where they search old landfill sites and extract old electronic devices in order to strip them for parts. It sounds unlikely but landfill mining is tipped to be the next big thing in the waste industry and will be worth billions of dollars to the US economy.

For consumers the best thing to do is to keep using items for as long as possible and not fall victim to commercials encouraging upgrading to the next big thing. Going the extra mile to recycle an electrical item may seem like unnecessary effort but there are benefits to doing so. At the very least it is worth looking into whether old items can be sold so that valuable metals such gold and silver are not being thrown away.

Scott Thomson

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