Every now and then, we’ll get questions from businesses and organizations about e-waste recycling and how it actually works.

Although you could do a search online and find millions of results, you might still be confused about the world of electronic disposal and how those who aren’t consumers can do their part to protect the environment from toxic e-waste.

We don’t want anyone to be confused about this topic anymore, so we developed this comprehensive guide to make e-waste easier to understand.


What counts as e-waste?

Electronic waste includes all discarded electric or electronic devices with battery power or circuitry or electric elements. This includes mobile phones, television sets, computers and printers, as well as servers and switches, networking equipment, test equipment, fiber optics and medical imaging equipment.

Where does e-waste go?

Every year, 50 million tons of e-waste is generated. This year alone, that number is expected to increase by 33%. In the U.S. alone, 5 million tons of e-waste is disposed of, but less than 14% of all e-waste is recycled. Although recycling numbers continue to rise year after year, more e-waste ends up in our landfills than is being recycled.

Electronic waste is also a globalized business, and it is important to keep in mind that about 70% to 80% of it is shipped to landfills in many developing nations, where it is sorted and sold for scrap metal or burned to extract materials, which is harmful to people and the surrounding environment.

Why is it important to properly dispose of electronic equipment?

According to the United Nations’ Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, a collaborative global effort to raise awareness and promote innovation in disposing and recycling e-waste, electronic waste can contain up to 60 elements from the periodic table, as well as flame retardants and other toxic chemicals.

What can e-waste be turned into?

When electronics can’t be repaired, the equipment can be broken down, component by component, material by material. Recoverable material is sorted and the components can be sold to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or sold in the secondary market. If the used electronic equipment is still working, e-waste operators (like Surplus Service) will repair them, reuse them or refurbish them.

E-waste can also be turned into reusable raw materials such as plastic and metals. In other cases, precious metals can be extracted from the electronics.

Where do I go for e-waste disposal?

Computers, monitors and other electronic equipment should not be disposed of with regular garbage. In fact, in California, it is illegal to dump e-waste into the trash. Obsolete electronics in working condition can be sold or donated to prolong their useful life. Electronics that can’t be repaired should be recycled by an organization qualified to do so.

CalRecycle offers information about responsible e-waste management companies (we are listed as one of those companies). As a rule of thumb, used electronic devices should never go to the landfill—they should be either reused or recycled.

How do I vet an e-waste recycling vendor?

In 2003, California became one of the first states to not only encourage but fund recycling with a consumer fee placed on many electronics products purchased. The effort was well guided and provided a monetary incentive for manufacturers and consumers to recycle. However, the effort also produced a cycle of energy waste as big recycling companies—who are paid by the pound for every electronic item they recycle, working or not—grind the surplus equipment down into raw materials like glass, plastic and metal.

Although more viable than some alternatives, recycling is not the most economically or environmentally efficient solution. You should always try to work with an e-recycling vendor that places a priority on reusing electronics. There are huge energy savings with upcycling, and reuse provides fewer chances for e-waste to be shipped overseas.

Why do laws regarding e-waste vary so widely?

In 1989, the Basel Convention established an international treaty designed to reduce the amount of e-waste shipped to developing countries. To date, 185 countries have signed on. The United States is one of the few developed countries not participating in the treaty.

There have been many attempts in the U.S. to develop federal laws to deal with e-waste, but none have come to fruition. As a result, most states have their own e-waste disposal laws. Only 25 states have passed e-waste recycling laws.

Where is the e-waste capital of the world?

Guiyu, China, a village in eastern Guangdong province has been known infamously for over a decade as the “e-waste capital of the world.” At one point, it was estimated that as much as 70 percent of the e-waste in the world used to come through Guiyu. Over the last few years, however, Chinese authorities have clamped down on the amount of e-waste being imported into the area.

How bad is the e-waste problem in the U.S.?

In 2012, the U.S. generated more than 9 million tons of e-waste, which was a huge jump from its 2 million tons in 2005. In the U.S. alone, we throw out about 130,000 computers every day. We also throw out 100 million cell phones every year in the U.S. According to some experts, 99% of all the materials we consume are trashed within 6 months.

Rapid advances in technology have created a demand for “must-have” new products that make many electronics obsolete before the end of their useful life. But why is obsolescence a problem and when did the problem start?

The average person in the U.S. consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago, when stewardship and thrift were valued. How did this happen? It actually happened by design, according to The Story of Stuff. Shortly after WWII, the government was trying to figure out how to ramp up the economy and came up with a solution.

Retail analyst Victor Lebow summed up the solution like this: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption….We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”

President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman said the American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more goods. People have bought into that philosophy because of two main reasons: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence means things are made as useless as possible so that we dump them and buy new stuff—this doesn’t just apply to plastic bags and coffee cups but to computers and other electronic equipment as well. Perceived obsolescence convinces us to throw away stuff that is perfectly useful. Manufacturers do this by changing the way the stuff looks, and people are guilt-tripped into buying more stuff.

Why is upcycling considered better than recycling?

As the saying goes: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Not all waste is meant to be destroyed, which means there are many materials that can be reused or refurbished for further use. Isn’t this what recycling is all about? Not quite.

Recycling requires breaking down an electronic device into raw components using chemical or mechanical processes. Upcycling, on the other hand, does not require degradation, thus saving energy and resources by allowing a product to immediately be converted into something better.

How can my business do its part to be an e-waste recycling hero?

Today, on average, personal computer equipment is usually replaced every two years and businesses often replace their equipment every three to four years. Consequently, computer buyers (i.e. IT, EH&S and Facilities managers) are faced with new challenges: what equipment should they buy and what should we do with the old equipment?

Despite recent improvements, electronics are still made with toxic materials, including lead, mercury, beryllium and cadmium, which cause birth defects, nervous system disorders and brain dysfunction, especially in children. While the U.S. continues to be one of the few developed countries throughout the world that still exports most of its electronic waste, there are a number of e-waste management companies, including Surplus Service, that have a proven track record of going well beyond compliance and meeting the very highest standard for responsible reuse and recycling.

By working with a vendor that understands how to choose the most eco-friendly methods for disposing of your e-waste, how to prioritize upcycling and to properly manage assets so that data remains secure, your organization’s chances of meeting its e-waste recycling goals dramatically increase. As a result, your harm to the environment is reduced, your bottom line increases and your business becomes known as an e-waste recycling hero.

Surplus Service is a San Francisco, CA Bay Area-based award-winning e-waste management business that specializes in ITAD, medical recycling, electronic liquidation, reverse logistics and data eradication. As the No. 1 electronic reuse and recycling leader, our goal is to provide eco-friendly solutions that lead to the reuse of electronics rather than just having them recycled or end up in a landfill. To learn more about us, call one of our e-waste recycling specialists at (510) 226-0600 or email us at Info@SurplusService.com.


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