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E-Waste and Recycling - The Cold Hard Facts

ewasteElectronic waste is going to be a major problem for future generations unless proper recycling measures are put in place. E-Waste can take many forms, from large appliances through to mobile phones, DVD players and laptops, but all share negative environmental effects. In terms of mobile phones, around 140 million mobile phones exist in the United States alone, of which only 14 million, or 10%, are recycled on average per year. When combined with other forms of E-Waste, major countries like the US are looking at 400 million units of E-waste each year, with over 3 million tonnes marked as waste in 2008. With recycling rates still regularly falling below 20%, dumping electrical equipment and appliances into landfills and incinerators creates multiple problems. 

Landfill waste creates problems in terms of space, but also for the effect of toxic components seeping into the earth or being released into the atmosphere over time. Dangerous levels of copper, silver and gold can contribute in this way to ozone layer damage and soil erosion. Moreover, incinerated waste creates the same problems for releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere. To return to phones, if most people recycle their handsets every 18 months, the amount of tonnes dumped is going to exponentially grow as more people become phone owners. 

The environmental cost of replacing electrical and electronic appliances can be extended across computers, with 500 million units of consumer goods sold per year, and people opting to regularly update their computers and phones. Environmental costs consequently include both wastage, but also the byproducts of having to manufacture new models to meet demand. 

What Can Be Done? 

A number of different recycling options are available for cutting down on the amount of E-waste that is produced each year. In Europe, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directives were introduced in 2003 as a way of regulating manufacturer and consumer disposal of old appliances and other pieces of technology. Regulations push to ensure that manufacturers create free to use schemes for returning and collecting old appliances, and that recycling centres and collection points are established to specifically deal with electronic waste. 

The Importance of Mobile Phones 

In terms of mobile phone recycling, consumers can help to reduce waste by taking their old phones into shops for collection, while also selling them to companies in exchange for cash. Prices can very significantly, and can include £20 to £50 for older phones, and prices of over £100 to £400 for recent smart phones in good condition. Given the demand for smart phones, the availability of second hand Apple iPhone 3s, or Samsung Galaxy IIs on the market means that it is possible to prevent older generations of phones from being disposed of by their owners. Around 472 million smart phones were sold in 2011, with the Apple iPhone particularly selling 37 million phones. These figures are expected to grow, meaning that demand for older phones will continue alongside new sales and upgrades. 

When recycled, old mobiles and smart phones can be re-distributed to other countries, given away to charities, or stripped down to make the most of individual parts. For example, most phones contain around 3.5 kg of silver, and 240 grams of gold, as well as copper and aluminum. 6000 used phones can produce $15,000 dollars in precious metals, while plastics and glass can be similarly sold on for other uses. Getting into good habits now with phone and other forms of E-waste recycling is therefore essential for avoiding a backlog of appliances from swamping landfill sites and damaging the environment.