Our Stuff Is Getting Harder to Recycle—and That’s a Huge Problem

Christmas is the high-water mark of new stuff—and a lot of that new stuff is going to be electronic. As Wired’s Christina Bonnington pointed out yesterday, the mounting influx of shiny, thin devices is an environmental catastrophe just waiting to happen.

“Some 41.5 million tons of electronic waste was generated in 2011, and that number is expected to rise to 93.5 million by 2016, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets. Right now, 70 to 80 percent of all that old gadgetry goes straight to landfills,” Bonnington said.

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, but—so far—it hasn’t figured much into our collective ecological consciousness. It’s just not something we like to talk about. Partly because we really enjoy buying faster, shinier, thinner new gadgets. Partly because the solution is easy: just recycle those gadgets instead of tossing them away—and you can upgrade with a clear conscience, right?

Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. As devices have gotten thinner and more compact, they’ve actually gotten much harder to recycle. Contrary to popular belief, recyclers do a lot more than just melting down truckloads of rusty and broken computers. The first step to any recycling effort is always reuse.

Recyclers test devices, dismantle them, salvage usable parts, repair what they can, and scrap only what can’t be saved. A lot of energy, water, and resources go into manufacturing something like a computer chip. It just makes more sense (both financially and environmentally) to reuse that chip than it does to melt it down and re-manufacture it.

The problem: modern device design can hamper recycling efforts. Fewer gadgets are upgradeable these days—as we’ve pointed out time and time again during teardowns. Screens tend to be sealed up and batteries to be glued down. When it comes to reuse and recycling, softening the adhesive and removing those delicate components from devices is time-consuming and sometimes dangerous.

Glue on the Surface Pro makes it hard to recycle
No, that sticky black stuff is not tar, although it is unbelievably close in function, appearance, and smell. It’s a very strong glue on the Microsoft Surface Pro.

“All that glue must be removed before any recyclable material can be melted down. And battery recycling is a risky endeavor in the best of circumstances—under the right conditions, a damaged battery can cause a fiery explosion,” Wired points out. “Tack onto that the need to painstakingly pry a battery from its glue-smeared lodging and you’ve got a delicate task indeed.”

If we’ve got any shot at meeting the e-waste challenge head-on, manufacturers are going to have to start giving a product’s end-of-life just as much consideration as they do its useful life. They are going to have to start designing products to be easier to disassemble, easier to reuse, and easier to repair. Bonnington also suggests that standardized screws, standardized plastic resins, and less adhesive (changes that most consumers wouldn’t even notice) would also boost design-for-recycling efforts. As Bonnington explains:

More manufacturers need to start doing this. An old smartphone or laptop can only be reused (“The truest form of recycling,” says Sims [Recycling] sales and marketing vice president Sean Magann) so many times. The pattern of gadget manufacturing, use, and disposal needs to become circular to ensure our environment doesn’t turn into a Wall-E-esque landscape of toxic landfills, and to ensure the continued availability of the stuff that’s needed to keep making all these gadgets. Because we aren’t going to stop buying things any time soon.

We couldn’t agree more.

Consumers can do their part, too. If you’re switching to a new device this holiday season, look for one that is repairable or upgradeable. And be mindful of what happens to your old device. Instead of tossing it out, repair your old phone and give it away as a gift. Or donate that computer or tablet to a charitable program. And, of course, make sure you recycle all your e-waste responsibly.

Check out Bonnington’s full report at Wired. And explore iFixit.org for more information about how repair helps fight the growing e-waste crisis.