Where Your Tech Goes to Die: Recycling Your Gadgets

Agbogbloshie, a former wetland and suburb of Accra, Ghana is where technology goes to die. So it is no surprise that a study by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross put Agbogbloshie at the top of the list of the most polluted sites in the world in 2013. According to the report, Ghana annually imports around 215,000 tons of secondhand consumer electronics from abroad, primarily Western Europe, and generates 129,000 tons of e-waste every year.

A form of ‘recycling’ that commonly takes place at Agbogbloshie e-waste lands includes burning insulated electronic cables to recover the valuable copper inside. Styrofoam packaging is used as a fuel to burn the material in open areas releasing lead and other heavy metals in the process. “Stopping e-waste is proving very complicated and difficult,” noted Jack Caravanos, Blacksmith’s director of research, particularly because the latest gadgets, such as tablets, are even more difficult to recycle than old desktop computers.

A form of ‘recycling’ that commonly takes place at Agbogbloshie e-waste lands includes burning insulated electronic cables to recover the valuable copper inside.

What really happens to old tech

So how can we recycle, reuse, and repair some of the tech gadgets that we use in our everyday lives? Let’s start with PCs, a category which has been replaced by various more exciting devices. The U.S. National Safety Council estimated that over 63 million PCs are taken out of service every year, and over 85% of those computers will end up in landfills. For the U.K. over 1.2 million tons of electrical waste is created each year, of which 75% will end up in landfill sites.

The U.S. National Safety Council estimated that over 63 million PCs are taken out of service every year, and over 85% of those computers will end up in landfills.

The first priority must be to lower the percentage of electronics that end up as landfill. But what can be done? At first glance, simply dropping an old laptop or desktop at a local recycling company might sound like the best method – it won’t be trashed or wasted, its materials will be reused. But where and how is this recycling being done? Some recyclers might promise to dispose of your old computer or laptop but how is it possible to know if such disposal is done in an environmentally-friendly way?

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimate, American recyclers process and recycle only 39 percent of electronic waste domestically. The remaining 61 percent, which is often too costly and too toxic to process, is exported to communities such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana or Lagos, Nigeria.

From that point on it is the responsibility of local companies to dispose of the old technology. More often than not, workers dismantle electronics to extract whatever precious metals they can salvage and burn the rest, releasing large amount of toxins into the air, soil and underground water supply. From the environmental point of view, such ‘recycling’ can be even worse than simply tossing an old laptop into your nearest landfill.

From the environmental point of view, such ‘recycling’ can be even worse than simply tossing an old laptop into your nearest landfill.

Good reuse and recycling options do exist…

That all sounds rather desperate. Fortunately, an increasing number of options are becoming available to people who want to dispose of their old technology, particularly computers, in an environmentally friendly way. For those who are interested in recycling their laptops and PCs, the EPA has compiled and published a directory of environmentally friendly recycling companies in the US that have found a way to profitably and environmentally consciously recycle old technology.

Another way to dispose of old computers is to return them directly to manufacturers. In accordance with consumer demands, manufacturers like Apple, HP and Dell offer ‘take back’ options with most electronics. In order to sweeten the deal, some of those companies even provide store credits or gift cards in exchange for old products.

Alternatively, if the computer is still in a good shape, consider finding another user for it. Donating used computers through agencies like the National Cristina Foundation (US), TechSoup Global (US), Goodwill (US/Canada), World Computer Exchange (US/Canada), Computer Aid International (UK), or the Salvation Army (worldwide) will extend the lifespan of old technology and delay the need to recycle.

Lastly, for especially tech-savvy consumers, IBM has published a step-by-step guide on how to repurpose an old computer into a file server, for example, with Linux. If you don’t need your computer for day-to-day work or browsing, it could still serve as shared storage hidden out of sight.

Even though conscious recycling or donation of old computers are both important ways to aid both your community and the environment, another great option is to get a used PC running like new. Software programs like System Mechanic Pro improve overall system performance, speed and stability by regularly running maintenance tasks that clean PC’s registrar, defragmenting the hard drive, and wiping digital clutter.

Even though conscious recycling or donation of old computers are both important ways to aid both your community and the environment, another great option is to get a used PC running like new.

If your computer breaks, it’s worth getting it checked out by an independent local computer repair company rather than taking it to be checked out at a place that also sells new tech; the sad likelihood is that they’ll be more interested in selling you some new equipment than helping you to repair your old machine.

Think before you recycle

We now have more options than ever to environmentally consciously dispose of our computers, including recycling, donating, refurbishing, and returning back to manufacturers. The Electronics Take Back Coalition recently published an extensive list of manufacturer take-back programs that are audited by accredited independent auditors to the high e-Stewards standard, which does not allow e-waste exports to developing countries.

If you care about where your e-waste ends up, if you’d rather it wasn’t Agbogbloshie, make sure you do your research before you recycle.

We will be publishing a second part to this piece soon, exploring the issue of mobile phone and battery recycling. Stay tuned!

 


Author: Kathy Mohanna

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