The use of electronic products has grown substantially in recent years, changing the ways in which we communicate, access information and entertain ourselves.
Americans now own approximately 24 electronic products per household, and annual electronics sales in the U.S. are greater than $206 billion. The rapid increase in consumer electronics purchases has created a growing stream of used devices in need of appropriate management.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, almost 2.4 million tons of electronics were disposed of in 2009, an increase of more than 120 percent from 1999. Of this amount, only 25 percent were collected for recycling. The rest ended up in landfills and incinerators. This includes computers, televisions, stereos, printers, copiers and mobile devices.
Although used electronics make up a relatively small percentage of the overall waste stream, their disposal is a source of concern for several reasons. The production of electronic devices requires a significant amount of resources – metals, plastics and glass – many of which can be recovered through recycling. For example, the production of one desktop computer takes at least 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water. Cell phones are also resource-intensive, composed of precious metals such as silver, gold, palladium and copper. Recovering these and other materials through recycling uses a fraction of the energy needed to mine new metals.
In addition, the presence of hazardous materials such as lead, nickel and mercury in some electronics make safe disposal particularly important. These metals could pose risks to human health or the environment if improperly handled.
Consumers have many options to recycle or donate their used electronics:
- A number of manufacturers and retailers now offer a return program or sponsor recycling events.
- 25 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation establishing a statewide electronic waste, or e-waste, recycling program.
- Legislation typically follows two basic models for e-waste disposal. Under the extended producer responsibility model, used in 24 states, the manufacturer takes responsibility by paying to collect and recycle the products covered under law, with the products covered varying widely from state to state.
- Under the second type of program, known as the advanced recycling fee model, consumers pay retailers a $6 to $10 fee at the time of purchase which is deposited into a statewide recycling fund. California adopted this method in 2003—and was the first state to establish an e-waste recycling program.
- In addition, Colorado enacted legislation in 2012 (SB 133) prohibiting the disposal of electronic devices at solid waste landfills throughout the state. Counties that do not have at least two electronic recycling events per year or an ongoing electronic waste recycling program may vote to opt-out of the ban. The law also requires state agencies to recycle electronic devices.
States with Electronic Waste Recycling Programs