E-Waste Not, Want Not: Americans Are Recycling More Electronics

Good news, folks! Americans have gotten better at recycling their old electronics—so says the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the EPA’s new report, published in June, Americans actually increased their overall production of municipal waste in 2013 to 254 million tons of waste—or 4.4 pounds per person per day. But e-waste was one of the few categories where recycling rates increased significantly—by ten percentage points in just one year.

For 2013, the EPA found that the rate of selected consumer electronics recovery was 40.4% or 1.27 million tons—up from 30.6% in 2012 and just 25% back in 2009. The EPA doesn’t speculate as to why the rate of recycling increased so dramatically year over year, but it’s presumably partially due to higher awareness.

E-waste that wasn't recycled
This person failed at recycling—but Americans in general are doing a better job at keeping their old electronics out of the trash.

So, good job everyone: fewer electronics are winding up in the trash heaps. But we’re not done yet. Recycling is just one piece of the larger moving puzzle that is sustainable resource management. Even when electronics are recycled, we aren’t that great at recovering many of the materials in them—like rare earth metals. And manufacturing—not end-of-life—represents most of a product’s environmental footprint. That’s why reuse and repair, which extend a device’s lifetime, are so important.

Before you send your electronics off for recycling, demand as much out of them as you can. An Austrian survey this year found that on average, people replace their cell phones about as often as they replace their t-shirts. But the study also found that those cell phones are very rarely retired because they’re broken beyond repair—and the people who expect the most out of their stuff are the most likely to repair it.

The EPA itself is also starting to focus less on waste and more on product life cycles—a shift that mirrors the “circular economy” concept, which seeks to eliminate “waste” altogether. And honestly, circular design makes a lot of sense. Recyclers and environmental agencies spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with all the trash we make—and how to mitigate the effects of toxic material in our stuff. When, really, it’s smarter to account for reuse, recycling, sustainability, and longevity at the beginning of a product’s lifetime, rather than trying to figure it all out at the end.

“By examining how materials are used throughout their life cycle,” the study reads, “[the EPA’s new] approach seeks to use materials in the most productive way with an emphasis on using less; reducing toxic chemicals and environmental impacts throughout the material life cycle; and assuring we have sufficient resources to meet today’s needs and those of the future.”