What do we do with outdated technology?
Old desktop computer parts. Photo: Igor Ovsyannykov. Source: Fancycrave.
When things wear out or become obsolete we usually just throw them away. That works fine with old clothes and papers, stuff that decomposes and decays and rusts away. Rust never sleeps. But what about our old electronics. Our economy may be driven by software, now, but software has to run on hardware. And Moore’s Law means new hardware is always getting faster and more capable, so old hardware has to be replaced.
Most people just throw their old cell phones, computers, and batteries in the trash. That’s a problem. Throwing them in the trash convenient, but our electronics contain all kinds of hazardous materials that create significant environmental problems in a normal landfill. Laptops, monitors, mice, tablets, keyboards, TVs, modems – they all have lithium, lead, cadmium, yttrium, mercury, or other toxins. These chemicals leach into the ground around a landfill, and they remain in the ash residue of an incinerator.
It’s illegal to throw electronic waste in the trash, but enforcement is a problem. Who’s going to go through millions of bags of garbage filled with coffee grounds and diapers looking for cell phone batteries? The US produces three million tons of waste per year; China produces 2.5 million tons. Much of this waste is shipped to places where there is little environmental regulation, and it is burnt or disassembled with no safety considerations.
E-waste dump in Ghana. Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia
Our EPA estimates that only 15-20% of electronic waste is recycled. How can we improve compliance? One way is for retailers to encourage recycling. If consumers come into a store to properly dispose of their old electronics, chances are that some of them will purchase new goods, especially if the store provides recycling-based coupons to encourage both recycling and foot traffic. And the retailer could certify that their recycled electronics are refurbished and disposed of ethically, not just shipped to an incinerator in China. That’s one way physical stores could compete with Amazon!
There may be other market-based solutions to the problem of electronic waste. Markets are just collections of people, and people can be infinitely creative and resourceful when they have the right incentives. E-waste is a serious and growing problem – a problems that we can’t just throw away. When hazardous materials are involved, we can’t afford to let out of sight be out of mind.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”