Apple sold a record 74.5 million iPhones in last year’s fourth quarter. That “incredible quarter,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook called it, was due in large part to the debut of the iPhone 6, which prompted millions of people to swap out their old smartphone for a new one. But trading in the old for the new is quickly becoming an almost yearly ritual for many: Rapid advances in technology mean that our cellphones, tablets and TVs are “obsolete” in 18 months. So what happens to all those gadgets once we’re done with them?
They end up in landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2011 only one-quarter of all the electronic waste generated was recycled. At the same time, the United Nations reported that the world’s electronic waste would grow by 33 percent, from almost 50 million tons to more than 65 million tons, between 2012 and 2017.
The good news is that 25 states and the District of Columbia have electronic recycling laws in place. The laws primarily fall under two models. The first, which is on the books in all but one of these states, is called a “producer responsibility” approach. Under this model, the manufacturer pays to collect and recycle the products under the law. The other approach is fee-based, in which consumers must pay retailers a fee at the time of purchase. The fee, in turn, is deposited in a statewide recycling fund. This method is so far only in use in California, which was the first state to establish an e-waste recycling law in 2003.
The bad news is that despite these laws, e-waste is the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the country, according to the EPA. Still, there are at least five things a state or locality can do to boost electronic recycling rates:
1. Educate. Simply put, most Americans have no idea what counts as e-waste, let alone where it goes and why it matters to properly dispose of it. “Awareness efforts are key,” says Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER), which tracks e-waste laws.
2. Ban e-waste disposal. About 15 states have already enacted bans on disposing of some types of electronic waste in landfills. Almost all of these states saw a spike in e-waste recycling as a result. Maine, which was the first state to enact a ban in 2006, saw its rate of collection double in the first six months of the ban.
3. Provide collection services. Municipalities see high collection volumes when collection is convenient. Several states, including Oregon and Washington, require that every city and county with over 10,000 people must have a collection site. In Washington, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), 92 percent of residents have a convenient collection site within 10 miles of their home thanks to the law. Absent electronic waste drop-off centers, cities can also hold recycling events.
4. Know the recycler. There have been several instances in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, for example, where contracted recyclers simply walked away, leaving governments with electronics and no way to recycle them. There are a lot of “bad actors,” says ETBC’s Barbara Kyle, pointing to companies that dump electronics in landfills or just get in over their heads. Kyle says there are two voluntary certification programs that cities can use as guides when picking a recycler -- e-Stewards and R2. In addition, NCER, along with the state of Minnesota, recently developed a guide of best practices in selecting and contracting with a recycler.
5. Get the manufacturer involved. Producer responsibility laws are not necessary to boost e-waste recycling, says Linnell. For one, “the 25 states with laws already cover two-thirds of the population. And we’ve seen a wave of other activities to promote electronic recycling.” That said, more and more products are being designed in a way that is harder to recycle, says Kyle. They are harder to take apart and the stuff electronics are made of is less valuable. “We really do need states to take action,” says Kyle. “We need to get manufacturers to think about the life cycle of their products.”