June 23, 2024

‘Don’t throw that phone away’: a quick primer on e-waste and recycling electronics

The widespread proliferation of electronics today is contributing to the growing amount of discarded electronic waste, or e-waste for short.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines e-waste as “electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler.” Smartphones, television sets and batteries are a few examples of electronics that fall under this category.

Electronic devices generally contain precious metals such as copper, gold and zirconium, many of which are unrecoverable when improperly disposed of in landfills. A 2009 report by the EPA estimated that 2.37 million tons of e-waste was discarded, of which only 25% were sent to recyclers to be processed. The remainder were dumped into landfills.

Alongside precious metals, electronic devices often include hazardous materials. According to the Ohio EPA, many of these items contain cadmium, lead and mercury. If improperly disposed of, the hazardous materials in electronic devices can leach into the environment. 

The federal EPA notes that exposure to high concentrations of toxic materials can lead to detrimental health effects, including cancer, miscarriage and neurological damage.

The collection of electronic waste often falls into the purview of municipal governments in central Ohio, such as Jackson Township in Grove City whose administrative office offers year-round e-waste collection services. 

Photo by Marvin Wurr. The entrance to the main office at Accurate IT Services, where customers can drop off their electronics Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

However, there are also businesses that specialize in the recycling of electronic goods.

“We’re at the front of the recycling chain,” said Kennon Hunt, an employee at Accurate IT Services in Columbus, Ohio.

Accurate IT Services is an R2-certified electronics recycling company based out of Fisher Road, which has operated since 2001.

The R2 Standard refers to a set of criteria developed by Sustainable Electronics Recycling International to ensure the responsible reuse and recycling of electronics. Vendors are independently audited by certification bodies before being added to a list of R2-certified facilities.

“A big part of our business is the collecting aspect,” said Hunt. “We will do work with cities and counties, townships to do collection events for community recycling. And then we also contract with schools, businesses, entire school districts, universities, things like that.”

Accurate IT Services also offers services to individuals, accepting electronics drop-offs at their main office.

Photo by Marvin Wurr. A stack of disc drives waiting to be processed at the Accurate IT Services facility.

After electronics are collected at the Accurate IT Services facility, they get weighed in by the staff and sent into sorting departments. Electronics with higher potential for reuse are sent to a testing department. Older and less valuable equipment are sent into processing where they’re broken down into what Accurate IT Services has dubbed “e-scrap commodities.”

“We have several downstream vendors that we then send those to,” said Hunt. “Our scrap metal commodities: steel, aluminum, copper, they’ll go to a downstream vendor that specializes in remanufacturing.”

Other reusable equipment, such as working laptops, often get repackaged and sold on retail markets by bulk refurbishers.

“The commodities market is kind of fluctuating. That’s why we try to, you know, we always have multiple downstream vendors that we use because we try to get the best price,” said Hunt.

He also notes that certain electronic items, such as AA-batteries, are perfectly safe to throw in the trash. However, he makes an exception for lithium-ion batteries.

“You definitely don’t [want] to be throwing those in a landfill, but I could definitely see households just throwing that in the trash,” said Hunt, commenting on consumer attitudes towards electronics. Lithium-ion batteries are often used on devices such as smartphones, hence their proliferation. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was recalled due to frequent incidents of its lithium-ion battery exploding.

“There’s a lot of e-waste out there, and it’s a constantly changing field, but it’s something that’s got to get done. But it’s also not only just for the environment, it is also good for business. It’s good for providing employment for people in the community,” said Hunt.

Author

  • Marvin Wurr

    Marvin is a third-year English literature major. In his free time he enjoys hanging out with friends at bars and watching straight-to-DVD action flicks.

Leave a Reply