It feels as if electronics were made to be thrown out every year, right? From mobile phones that just happen to die right when your contract is over to televisions that become obsolete as soon as a larger, thinner version debuts.
While every generation of electronics gets a little more efficient, we should make our phones, tablets, TVs, and computers last as long as possible to reduce the amount of e-waste sent to landfills — and most of our electronics still go unrecycled. Most surprising of all, though, is the billions of dollars worth of precious metals and rare-earth elements that go into landfills each year because of carelessly disposed of electronics. Countries are literally throwing away money every day.
What is considered e-waste? More than just outdated mobile phones, e-waste is any electronic waste that is no longer wanted or is now obsolete, whether it works or not. Televisions, set-top boxes, DVD players, stereos, copiers, fax machines, tablets, computers, and plenty more electronic devices all become e-waste as soon as they are no longer wanted. Technology carries severe environmental consequences when we don’t recycle e-waste responsibly.
E-waste isn’t always easy and convenient to recycle. Local governments often have e-waste collection days a few times a year, but that means that homeowners have to store the unwanted items in the meantime. Several electronic stores will accept electronics for recycling at no cost, including Best Buy and Staples. And several electronics companies accept their products for recycling, including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Dell.
With lack of ease and possible fees to recycle e-waste, it seems like an uphill battle to tackle this growing waste problem that comes with toxic materials that are thought to be detrimental to human health upon exposure. The following surprising facts about e-waste may help to spur action — both to protect the environment and to stop wasting resources that amount to quite a lot of cash being tossed in landfills each year.
- Global e-waste volumes grew by 21% between 2104 and 2019, according to the United Nations, a pace that will lead to a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. The world discarded 53.6 million tons of e-waste in 2019.
- Only 17.4% of e-waste discarded in 2019 was recycled, the United Nations reports.
- Europe leads the world in e-waste recycling, collecting, and processing 42.5% of its 2019 e-waste, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Asia, with 24.9 million tons of e-waste, now accounts for almost twice the e-waste volume the Americas (13.13.1 million tons) produce each year. Asia also recycles more of its e-waste, at 11.7% in 2019, than the Americas do at 9.4%.
- The United States generated 6.92 million tons of e-waste, about 46 pounds per person, in 2019. It recycled only 15% of the material.
- The value of the raw materials contained in the e-waste produced in the U.S. during 2019 was $7.49 billion. That’s right. We threw away billions of dollars worth of materials that could be used again.
- Recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year, according to the EPA.
- For every 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, according to the EPA. For those not familiar with palladium, it’s a precious metal using for making electrical contacts as well as surgical instruments and parts for watches.
- Recycling circuit boards can be more valuable than mining for ore! One ton of circuit boards is estimated to contain 40 to 800 times more gold than one metric ton of ore. There is 30 to 40 times more copper in a ton of circuit boards that can be mined from one metric ton of ore.
- Old television sets as well as CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors contain approximately 4 to 8 pounds of lead, a neurotoxin. Improper disposal means this toxic substance can leach into the ground.
- It takes 500 pounds of fossil fuel, 50 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- In 2019, between 3.75 million tons and 10.72 million tons of e-waste were shipped to developing countries. Not only did it create a dumping problem in those countries, but it also used resources to transport the waste to countries around the world.
- Guiyu, China, is a major dumping ground for e-waste from the U.S. After the e-waste is transported to China, the electronics are dumped in the town where they litter the streets and poison the residents. Workers apply to the electronics to reveal the steel and copper they contain. High levels of lead have been reported among residents.
- Not all e-waste recyclers are the same. There are safer ways to recycle e-waste, and then there are companies that simply export the waste to developing countries. Rather than monitoring the recycling of e-waste for health and human safety standards in these developing countries, many businesses simply have residents disassemble the electronics for scrap metal, exposing the workers to toxic materials. Look for an e-waste recycling company that has been vetted through e-stewards.org.
- Plastics in e-waste can be recycled into garden furniture. Battery components can be reused in other batteries. Metals can be used in jewelry and automotive parts.
- It is estimated that 40% of the heavy metals in U.S. landfills come from discarded electronics, according to Jonas Allen, director of marketing for EPEAT, a global green electronic rating system.
- According to Allen, if the recycling rates for gold (15%), silver (15%), and platinum (5%) all increased to 100%, the electronics sector could realize $12 billion in financial and natural capital benefits.
- Americans throw out approximately 416,000 mobile phones each day, according to 2014 figures from the EPA. That equates to more than 151 million phones thrown away in one year.
- There are more mobile connections worldwide than the number of people on Earth. Based on cellular data, there are 10.36 billion mobile connections, while the world population is 7.84 billion. This doesn’t mean that everyone owns a mobile device; the number of people with mobile devices is estimated at 5.26 billion.
- The United Nations estimates that global e-waste volumes could increase by as much as 39% to 74.7 million tons a year by 2030.
- Many major retailers will accept e-waste for recycling, regardless of whether you purchased the product from the retailer or not. Among those stores accepting drop-offs are Staples, Verizon, and Best Buy. Always call ahead of time to confirm that stores will accept e-waste and what types of products they will recycle.
Want more e-waste information? Read What Happens to E-Waste When It Gets Recycled?
Originally published on February 24, 2016, this article was updated in March 2021.