safe electronics disposal

Electronics: The Next Frontier in Sustainability

By: Mathy Stanislaus

Last year was quite a year for the Office of Land and Emergency Management. October marked the 40th anniversary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and we have been taking stock of our success managing our materials and waste, and discussing where we need to head in the future. In addition, we have worked continuously to advance Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) and life cycle thinking. Recent analysis concludes that global raw materials use is accelerating to a point of creating economic risks, along with increasing environmental consequences such as greenhouse gas emissions. As the U.S. Government’s representative to the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency, I have championed SMM to make life cycle thinking ubiquitous throughout a product’s supply chain. This includes manufacturing, transportation use, and end of life management to get the most out of the materials we use. A perfect example of SMM in action in the U.S. today is the design and management of electronics.

The Electronics Lifecycle

The Electronics Lifecycle

In 2012, the Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge was launched under the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES). The Challenge encourages electronics manufacturers, brand owners and retailers to strive to send 100 percent of the used electronics they collect from the public, businesses and within their own organizations to third-party certified electronics refurbishers and recyclers.

Graphic displaying the total benefits of Electronics Challenge participants

By EPA publically acknowledging their efforts and achievements, we amplify the message of the safe management of electronics across their life cycle and inspire the electronics industry and other sectors with transferrable best practices.

Through source reduction, designing with environmental awareness, responsible recycling, and outreach, our Challenge participants – Best Buy; Dell Inc.; LG Electronics, USA; Samsung Electronics Co.; Sony Electronics, Inc.; Sprint; Staples; and VIZIO, Inc. – have made significant environmental contributions.

Electronic products are a global economic driver, with supply chains reaching around the world. Like so many products on the market, today’s electronics are made from valuable resources and highly engineered materials, like precious metals, plastics, and glass. If not properly managed, some of the materials in our electronics may pose a risk to human health and the environment. By designing with the environment in mind and through a life-cycle lens, toxic materials can be designed out of the product and the product can be made to be more readily repairable and reusable, extending its life and facilitating recycling.

Dell and Samsung have innovated in their industry sectors with this principle in mind. Dell is a 2016 Champion for their use of post-industrial recycled (PIR) carbon filled polycarbonate in a new line of laptops, the first laptop to use this material. By using PIR material, Dell kept 170,000 pounds of carbon fiber from being landfilled in 2015. Samsung is a 2016 Champion for their Cadmium-free Quantum Dot ultra-high definition televisions (HDTV), also an industry first. The resulting TVs are free of cadmium – a hazardous heavy metal – and use less materials and energy than other HDTVs, with properties that allow for better light efficiency and improved durability. This allows the display to be kept at peak quality for years, delaying end-of-life management decisions.

Since the Challenge was launched, our participants collectively have sent nearly 950,000 tons of electronics to certified recyclers, which is equivalent to powering over 334,072 homes with electricity for one year or diverting over 717,900 tons of waste from landfills! Staples is a 2016 Champion for their innovative outreach and public education initiative, which reached over 6 million consumers with information on their Technology Recycling Program. Through their efforts, Staples attained a significant increase in the tons collected per store from 2014 to 2015 and then ensured that 100% of the e-waste collected from consumers was sent to a certified recycler.

The SMM Electronics Challenge is about much more than electronics recycling. In addition to rewarding significant recycling efforts, we also give out the Champion Awards, which honor our participants for using life cycle thinking in designing their products and promoting this thinking through outreach programs aimed at consumers. The products and programs recognized by these awards are real-world examples of SMM in action. You can learn more about previous and our current champion award winners here.

I am exceptionally proud of the successes the Electronics Challenge participants this year and the hard work of my staff for keeping the momentum going. In addition to recognizing the great work of our Challenge participants it’s also important that we use this moment to encourage other businesses in their sustainability programs to model the substantial commitment and deliver the same outstanding results that our Challenge participants have produced.   Some might even want to step up and join our Electronics Challenge program; we would welcome your participation.

To honor the achievements of our participants and broaden our message to the electronics community, I am thrilled that we are partnering with the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) for the awards ceremony. The ceremony will be held on January 7, 2017, on the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) stage at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV. CTA and EPA will also be co-hosting a panel discussion where we will have a robust dialogue with our stakeholders and participants. The actions of today influence our tomorrow, so let me once again congratulate our 2016 Electronics Challenge participants!

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Terminating Our Used Electronics

By Joshua Singer

Anyone who has seen “The Terminator” can appreciate the importance of recycling electronics.

In the original film, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of the leader of humanity in the war against robots. The sequel also features the ex-governator, but as a robot reprogrammed to save the teenaged savior-to-be. In both films, Arnold plays a lethal, flesh-covered machine uncannily well.

The movies provide an action-packed demonstration of why the phrase “end of life” is appropriately associated with safe electronics disposal (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoiling the plot). Rather than throwing away discarded computers, TVs or cell phones, valuable materials can be recycled from them and used to make new products, which helps to protect people and the environment.

You don’t need to see “The Terminator” to understand reasons for recycling electronics. Recycling reduces the amount of raw materials extracted from the earth, saves the energy needed to make new products and reduces landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Discarded electronics contain toxins that can leach into the environment if improperly managed. Illegal dumping, for example, can release lead and mercury.

As we grow more dependent on machines, this issue will grow in importance. Americans discarded approximately 2.4 million tons of TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronics in 2010, roughly 25 percent of which was recycled.

More “end-of-life” electronics should be recycled. And some products that people can’t or don’t want to use anymore are in good enough shape to be refurbished or resold. Electronics recycling is also required in some cases. For example, Illinois will ban additional electronics, such as TVs and computers, from landfill disposal beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

You may be able to unload old electronics at a thrift store (if they still work), a retailer or manufacturer that accepts them, local government drop-off site or a recycling facility. R2 and e-Stewards® third-party certification programs can help ensure recycling companies handle materials properly.

While not quite as dramatic as a war against robots, we need to combat problems resulting from greater use of electronics. Recycling more electronics is a battle we can win, with or without the Terminator.

About the author: Joshua Singer is a press officer in EPA’s Chicago Office.  He works on Superfund, land and chemical issues.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog, nor does EPA endorse the opinions or positions expressed. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content. If you do make changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.