Gadget shopping? Chances are that as soon as you plunk down cash for a new smartphone or 9.7-inch tablet or 4K / 3D / LED flatscreen television, a tiny part of your brain is already plotting its disposal. Thanks to rapid changes in technology, a shifting media landscape, and falling prices, discarded electronics have become the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. In the US, we threw away 16 billion pounds of circuit boards, transistors, and hard drives, also known as e-waste, in 2014 alone; about 50 pounds each for every man, woman, and child.
In response to all this digital detritus has risen a cottage industry of recyclers, from multi-million-dollar corporations to local nonprofits to fly-by-night, back-of-the-van scammers. It’s no small task, too. Recycling electronic waste requires the ability to collect, sort, dismantle, and extract recyclable materials and precious metals from a whole range of devices, while also separating out non-recyclable and hazardous waste. To be a large-scale e-waste recycler you need to have a fleet of vehicles, an army of workers, ample warehouse space, government contracts, and loads of insurance. The profits are slim, the overhead is huge, and regulatory landscape is endlessly confusing.
“It’s a constant challenge,” says John Shegerian, CEO of the Fresno, California-based Electronics Recyclers International. With seven facilities around the country, ERI is one of the biggest e-waste recyclers in the US. Since getting into the business over a decade ago, the company’s margins have exploded. In April of 2005, it recycled 10,000 pounds of e-waste; this last April, that number spiked to 23 million pounds. ERI recycles most of New York City’s residential e-waste, which translated to over 2 million pounds in 2015 alone. “It’s a huge enterprise to recycle electronics in a responsible way… We’re recycling a couple hundred million pounds a year, over a billion pounds in our lifetime as a company, and we’ve still only scratched the surface.”
The US has no federal law requiring e-waste be recycled. Currently, only 25 states in the US have laws establishing a funding system for the collection and recycling of electronic products, as well as bans against sending electronics to landfills. In the other 25 states, tossing toxic e-waste into the trash is perfectly legal.
And then there’s the disastrous effect that e-waste has had on Third World countries. The US is the only developed nation that hasn’t ratified an international treaty to stop First World countries from dumping their e-waste in developing nations. So, mountains of hazardous US-based waste are growing at an exponential rate in countries like India, China, and South Africa. Exported e-waste has turned rivers in China black and towns in Ghana into some of the world’s largest dumps. The UN Environment Programme predicts that between 2007 and 2020, the amount of e-waste exported to India will have jumped by 500 percent, and by 200 to 400 percent in South Africa and China.
Meanwhile, all of our electronics are getting smaller, more streamlined, and exceedingly more difficult to recycle. The larger companies, like Apple, HP, Huawei, Amazon, and Microsoft have detailed protocols for recycling their products, but that only applies to those that are actually returned by consumers. Most Americans toss their old gadgets in the trash with last night’s dinner. The rest is left to recyclers like ERI to try to bring some sanity to the process.
Over several weeks in early 2016, The Verge tracked just one of the countless e-waste recycling paths around the country, from a garbage room in an apartment building in Manhattan, to a drop-off site in Staten Island, to a sorting facility in New Jersey, to a bustling recycling warehouse in Massachusetts. The goal was simple: to get a broader sense of where all our old televisions, phones, and computers go when we don’t want them anymore.