My apartment is rife with black holes. There’s the space between my hamper and dresser, where garments that need mending go — never to re-emerge. There’s the smallest drawer in my kitchen, jam-packed with plastic utensils and forgotten coupons. And then, of course, there’s the second drawer down in my desk: the tech drawer.

My tech drawer is a repository for all the tech accessories I’ve ever acquired in my adult life. It’s full of things I don’t have any use for, but have never bothered to get rid of. That’s because it’s easier to stick obsolete wires and digital cameras in object purgatory than it is to figure out how to get rid of them.

That changes now. I’ve decided to tackle my e-waste.

For help on how to get started, I turned to the pros at the New York City Department of Sanitation, my local waste management body. I knew you couldn’t just throw e-waste in the garbage. But I didn’t exactly know why, or how broadly the term applied. Nor did I know what to do with all those ancient items instead (hence, the drawer).

 

“E-waste is discarded electronics that, when improperly disposed, have the potential of harming our ecosystem,” Dina Montes, the NYC Department of Sanitation press secretary said, defining the term for me. “Many electronics carry heavy metals like mercury, lead, lithium, and other hazardous materials that can pollute the air when incinerated or contaminate our ecosystem if thrown into landfills.”

Montes explained that e-waste encompasses a long list of devices, and that New York has specifically made it illegal to throw away devices that contain those environmentally toxic materials, including: TVs, monitors, computers, laptops, mice, keyboards, small servers, printers/scanners, tablets/e-readers, MP3 players, VCRs/DVDs/DVR players, fax machines, video game consoles, and cable/satellite boxes.

Since you can’t just put these objects in the regular trash, many places, including New York City, provide citizens with alternative methods for their disposal — like recycling events or other drop-off locations.

 

But that’s not all there is to it. 

After speaking with the New York City Sanitation Department, I thought that handing my mess of tangled cords off to a friendly recycler would be the end of it. What a relief! Drawer = clean!

Unfortunately, nothing in this good ol’ capitalist world of ours comes that easily. It turns out that, in order to be a responsible citizen, I needed to know a lot more about where e-waste actually goes once you hand it off to some so-called “recyclers.” There are a lot of so-called “recyclers” out there who take the good intentions of e-waste recycling individuals and turn their junk into environmental and humanitarian disasters.

“Globally, e-waste is the most traded hazardous waste on the planet,” Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN) said.

BAN is an electronics recycling watchdog organization that monitors where electronic waste ends up after being “recycled.” Unfortunately, all too often, e-waste from affluent countries like the U.S. gets shipped offshore to third-world countries, to facilities that reclaim materials like steel and aluminum in order to sell it — at great cost to worker health and the planet.

“It's very crude, very damaging to human health, [this] so-called ‘recycling,’ Puckett said. “They are trying to get commodities like steel, etc., but they're not taking care to do it properly.”

Substances in electronics like mercury, lead, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants need to be carefully removed from electronics and disposed of as hazardous waste. Only then can the rest of the materials in recycled electronics be accessed safely.

When done right, this process is complicated and expensive. So some recycling operations in third-world countries with fewer environmental and workplace protection laws and enforcement cut corners for the sake of profit.

 

“Once the recycling is happening in a developing country, there's a reason it was exported, and the reason is economic: because they're trying to avoid the cost of doing it properly,” Puckett said.

Instead of using high-tech shredders and uniforms, workers at unethical recycling facilities simply smash electronics open to gain access to the valuable and recyclable commodities. This process releases mercury and other hazardous materials into their breathing space and the soil. Then, the facilities often burn in open pits whatever isn’t reclaimed — which causes leftover substances like flame retardants to turn into toxic pollution for the surrounding environment and adjacent workers.

This means we all need to be vigilant about where we’re recycling our products. It’s not enough to just trust where your city government sends your e-waste; recently, BAN discovered that the recycler contracted by the City of Houston was ending up in these toxic pits.

Luckily, Puckett reassured me that there is a solution. BAN has a newly strengthened certification called the E-Stewards certification, which it awards to recyclers who don’t send recycling overseas to “smash and bash” operations. Puckett also recommends checking out Greenpeace’s electronics report card, as well as the organization EPEAT, to see which organizations use the most reclaimed materials while making electronics in the first place. I was excited to learn that according to both organizations, Apple’s iPhone beats out almost all other manufacturers, although its “green” processes certainly still have their flaws.

“Before we created the E-stewards program, we actually told people to hang onto their items, to not recycle them, until we had a solution,” Puckett said. Now that the program exists, “We stand by it. It does look after your data, and looks after the environment, and gets those commodities back into the recycling stream, so we have a circular economy. It’s far more efficient and far better for the environment in the long run.”

Armed with this information, it was time to dive into the drawer. I’m proud to say I’m more cable-free than ever before, though I couldn’t bring myself to part ways with my digital camera, which maybe someday I’ll use again.

I also learned a few things along the way. Here’s what I found out for recycling e-waste from lightbulbs to batteries and beyond.

BASIC TIPS

1) First, make sure your city’s sanitation department is E-Steward certified. Look for the E-Steward label on their website, or locate them in the “find a recycler tool.”

2) If they are certified, check to see if your town’s sanitation department has e-waste recycling events or pick-up. You can drop off all of the e-waste below at these events, unless otherwise specified.

3) If not, find an E-steward certified recycler using the “find a recycler” tool.

4) Know that manufacturers will often allow you to send back and recycling with them. However, make sure the manufacturer is E-Steward certified first.

5) An alternative: You can take your e-waste to any Staples, which is E-Steward certified, for recycling! Here’s a list of everything the retailer will accept.

6) If an item is leaking, pack it in a larger container, like a sturdy box. Use an absorbent material, such as kitty litter or newspaper, to soak up excess fluid. And it’s a good idea to wear latex gloves or something else to protect your hands from chemicals.

7) Place anything that has broken glass (such as TVs, monitors, or phones) in separate sealed bags or boxes.

8) Appliances, batteries, and light bulbs aren’t usually accepted at general municipal drives, but cities will often have special drives and locations for items like batteries. 

 

Not all e-waste recycling is created equal.

The amount of hazardous vs. reclaimable material in your e-waste varies from product to product. Municipal drives will accept most of your e-waste, but because of product differences, there are a few steps you should take before handing over your digital detritus. In order to protect yourself, and the planet, here's what you need to know.

Computers, phones, and tablets

It’s a good idea to wipe the data off of your phone, computer, or hard drive before you recycle it. If these devices end up at sketchy recyclers, your personal information could be exposed. However, an E-steward certified recycler will also destroy all data to prevent it from being taken during the recycling process. 

Tech accessories

According to Earth 911, more than 70 percent of a gadget can be recycled. That’s because they’re made of valuable substances like plastic, steel, aluminum, copper, gold, and silver. The more these items are re-claimed, the less electronics manufacturers have to use energy to create substances like plastic, or damage the environment by mining for metals. 

Household items

Staples and many municipal drives and pick-up events often won’t take batteries, light bulbs, or appliances. But these items still contain re-claimable materials, like aluminum, as well as hazardous waste, like mercury and lead. A great resource is the search function on Earth911, which allows you to find recycling spots for particular items via your zip code.

 

Source by: Mashable