The speed with which consumers use and replace electronic devices is staggering: According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, with 5.5 tons composed of computers, cell phones and televisions. (See Reference 1, Page 27) The rapid increase in e-waste makes it necessary for manufacturers and municipalities to encourage computer recycling or reuse. Authorized e-waste recyclers in the United States collect more than 100 million pounds of obsolete electronics every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but much more is simply thrown away. Recycling such electronic waste has numerous benefits -- and not recycling computers poses serious threats to the environment.
In the U.S., in 2009 alone, discarded electronics like TVs, computers and computer peripherals comprised approximately 2.37 tons of waste. Of that amount, about 1.7 million tons were destined for landfills. (See Reference 2) E-waste packs landfills with reusable or recoverable materials and takes up space needed for non-recyclable products. Much of the e-waste in the U.S. is shipped overseas, ostensibly for recycling -- but it often ends up in polluting landfills. (See Reference 1, Page 27)
While the EPA believes that “disposal of electronics in properly managed municipal solid waste landfills does not threaten human health and the environment,” computers indisputably contain toxic metals like lead, cadmium and mercury. (See Reference 2) If computers are discarded in improperly managed landfills, the metals could leach into the ground surrounding the dump site. The resulting pollution could affect groundwater and the flora and fauna that depend on it.
Computer infrastructure also contains valuable metals such as gold, copper and platinum. Throwing away computers forces manufacturers to expend energy and resources to find raw materials for new products. Mining for precious metals, creation of engineered plastics and the manufacture of brand new components all consume energy and expel greenhouse gases into the environment, hastening the effects of climate change. Recycling computers allows manufacturers to reclaim the metals and other materials and reuse them. (See Reference 2)
Consumers may discard computers that are outdated in favor of newer models, even if they’re still in good working condition. This practice denies the benefits of technology to secondary users such as schools, nonprofit organizations, small businesses or students. Donating working computers and their peripherals extends their usefulness and keeps them out of landfills longer. (See Reference 3)
Kat Long is a journalist based in New York City. Since 2001, her articles have appeared in U.S.newspapers and magazines, including the "Village Voice" and "The Advocate," as well as online media. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and history.
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