The State of E-Scrap
Used electronics (e-scrap) is one of the fastest growing sources of waste, globally. According to ISRI, only 25% of household electronics are actually collected and recycled which leaves 3.5 million tons available for recycling. According to dosomething.org, cell phones and other electronic items contain high amounts of precious metals like gold or silver. Americans dump phones containing over $60 million in gold/silver every year. For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. (source).
A growing amount of e-scrap is made up of cell phones. According to an article from the New York Times Americans replace their cellphones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone. Although some companies, like Apple and Best Buy, have instated recycling programs that allow you to upgrade your device at a discounted price, there is still a large amount of cell phones sent to landfills every year.
Recently, NAID purchased 52 recycled computer hard drives from various publicly available sources like eBay and hired a forensic investigator to determine whether confidential information was able to be retrieved. Through this study, the investigator was able to retrieve sensitive client files and personal information. Had the data been properly erased, it could not have been retrieved. The exportation of e-scrap without proper data destruction poses security risks to individuals and organizations alike.
Educate The Public
According to a press release by ISRI concerning their online poll conducted by earth911, “nearly 60 percent of the people who do not recycle old cell phones fail to do so because they either do not know where to recycle them or don’t trust that personal data will be destroyed. The results of this poll were released at the annual E-Scrap Conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 electronics recyclers, being held this week in Orlando.”
By putting the responsibility of sustainable design in the hands of the manufacturers, we would be taking a more proactive approach, fixing the problem at the source. Although some states already have laws like this in place, addressing it at the federal level would make a huge difference in our e-scrap habits.
One proposal that could directly remedy the problem of cell phones in the waste stream is Phonebloks. A phone (idea, not yet made) that would be made of detachable blocks. The idea is that these blocks would be different elements of the phone (battery block, storage block, camera block) about would be easily upgradable or fixable, so less whole cell phones would be sent to the waste stream.
Whether it be rules and regulations for more responsible recycling, programs to educate the public or an increased focus on manufacturer responsibility and sustainable design, it’s clear that with the growing amount of e-scrap, changes need to be made to ensure environmental and health safety, as well as national security.