Electronic Waste Generation is Shrinking Despite Growing Dependence on Technology


Pile of discarded smartphone and tablet screens.
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | January 4, 2021

A new study revealed a 10% decline in electronic waste (e-waste) generated in the United States since 2015 despite increasing dependence on smartphones and other technology.

The study, published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, also found that the total number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is leveling off or declining due to the versatility of modern devices. Many devices, like gaming consoles and smartphones, now have multiple uses and features, so people only need one device to meet their needs rather than two or three. For example, individuals no longer need a separate camera, camcorder and cellphone now that smartphones have quality cameras built in. The decline in e-waste can also be attributed to the phasing out of bigger, older products like computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions, according to a Yale E360 article.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream. While a decline in waste generation is positive, it does raise concerns over the way current e-waste recycling regulations in the U.S. are structured. Currently, only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most set their targets based on mass, according to the Yale E360 article. Because the total mass of e-waste output is declining, meeting those targets could become more complicated.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that laws should shift their focus from simply keeping electronics with high lead and mercury levels out of landfills to finding ways to recover useful elements from these devices and reuse them. Elements like cobalt and indium are relatively rare and are commonly used in electronic devices, so making the effort to recover and recycle them would serve as a positive first step toward transforming e-waste into a resource and ensure a domestic supply in the U.S. It would also reduce the need for mining operations that cause devastating environmental destruction.

Environmental groups speak out about consequences of holiday consumerism


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This holiday season, environmental groups are reminding consumers that increasingly short-lived gadgets have an impact on the natural environment. (Curtis Palmer/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | November 29, 2017

U.S. shoppers spent $5 billion in 24 hours on Friday, making Black Friday 2017 a record haul for retailers. Whether it’s purchased online or in stores, the new Hatchimal or the Nintendo Switch, environmental activists warn that consumers should think twice about the impact these goods have on the environment.

Greenpeace, an independent global campaigning organization, reported that electronic goods alone are expected to generate 50 million tons of waste in 2017. Electronic goods like smart phones and laptops make up the quickest growing waste stream worldwide, less than 16 percent of which is expected to be recycled this year. About one-third of e-waste that is recycled is sent overseas to countries like Kenya and Pakistan to be taken apart by workers that are not protected from the toxic materials that can be found inside electronic gadgets.

Plastic is also a primary contributor to waste during the holiday season. Used for everything from toys to wrapping paper to grocery bags, more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year with about 8 million tons of it dumped into oceans annually. Plastic can take more than 400 years to break down and has mounted to form two enormous plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean, one of which is estimated to be more than one million square miles in size.

Friends of the Earth environmental activist Julian Kirby asked of holiday shoppers, “If you don’t need it or want it then don’t give them your money. If you are going to take advantage of what’s purported to be lower prices then don’t rush into it, think about whether it’s the most sustainable and ethical product and whether you might be able to get a second hand version that’s able to do just as good a job.”

Iowa Goodwill stores to cease television recycling program


Photo by photophonic, Flickr.

Starting July 1, many Iowa Goodwill stores will no longer accept donations of unwanted televisions.

Dana Engelbert of Goodwill said it’s become too costly for the company to dispose of televisions that sit around in the stores, gathering dust and taking up shelf space.

“If you can’t sell a television for $1.38, it’s pretty obvious there just isn’t the demand there for them,” Engelbert said in an interview with KCRG.

The company said it spent $150,000 disposing of unwanted televisions over the past five months.

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On the Radio: Environmental e-waste disposal


Photo by Mosman Council, Flickr.

Listen to this week’s radio segment here or read the transcript below. This week’s segment suggests environmentally friendly options for e-waste disposal.

No longer want your old computer? Neither does your local landfill.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

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How to environmentally dispose of electronic waste


Photo by U.S. Army Environmental Command

Ever wonder how to best dispose of your old electronics?

Many electronics should not be thrown out in the regular trash. Electronics often contain toxic chemicals that can enter the groundwater while sitting in landfills.

In fact, starting next year it will be illegal for Illinois residents to throw out electronics – there is no such ban in Iowa.

There are many recycling options for electronic waste. Often, manufacturers such as IBM and Apple will offer ways to recycle their computers and other products. Additionally, Midwest Electronic Recovery – an electronics recycling company – has two locations in Iowa (Walford and Clive).

For the full article on Illinois’ new electronic waste law, read the Quad-City Times article here.

For information on disposing of electronics in Iowa, and the harmful effects of throwing out electronics, visit the Iowa DNR’s webpage here.

Update: The EPA has even more suggestions on where to recycle electronic waste here.

It is also worthwhile to find out your city’s protocol for recycling electronics. Some cities in Iowa, including Iowa City, have some services available.