The True Impact of Not Recycling Our Old Electronics

CC BY 2.0. Janitors

Gadgets can be incredibly useful and beneficial parts of our lives. They can connect us, inform us, tell us which way to go and entertain us. And even as they can sometimes lead us to live life virtually instead of being truly in the moment, they can also bring us closer to the world around us.

One of the biggest downsides of electronics is that their components are toxic to the environment, and to us, if they're just thrown away and left to leach into the earth. The ideal situation would be that all of us use, repair and repurpose our electronics until we no longer can and then at that point, we recycle them responsibly. Unfortunately, the statistics show that we don't come close to that ideal.

In 2014, global smartphone sales grew by 23 percent, but according to the EPA, only 27% of our e-waste is recycled annually, meaning our consumption of smartphones and other gadgets keeps growing while we keep tossing our old models in the trash. In 2010, that meant that only 649,000 tons of e-waste out of 2.44 million discarded were recycled.

“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we've learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade to Scientific American. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”

If we collectively did our part and Americans recycled the 130 million cellphones that are thrown away each year, we would save enough energy to power 24,000 homes. If we recycled one million discarded laptops per year, we'd save the equivalent of powering 3,657 homes.

More than just the energy that could be saved by recycling electronics instead of manufacturing brand new ones, the metals that could be reused instead of having to mine for new supplies could prevent further air and water pollution from the processes used to harvest the metals. For every million cell phones recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium could be recovered.

Many of the metals used in our gadgets are rare earth metals that are in limited supply.

What can you do?

The good news is that recycling our electronics is easy. Every Best Buy in America accepts used electronics for recycling, regardless of where you bought the device. If you want to make a little cash for recycling your old phones, companies like Gazelle and Amazon will offer you cash or store credit. For a list of places to recycle your old electronics, go here. There are also are many organizations that you can donate your used phones to that will use the proceeds to fund great causes around the world.

The best thing you can do is to slow down and use your gadgets for longer. Yes, those new models are shiny and impressive, but use yours for a bit longer and then, please recycle.