By Veena Clay August 28, 2014

As tablet and laptops sales increase in schools, addressing the e-waste issue in schools could get tricky. Momentum is building among schools for a massive discard of out-of-date and unwanted electronics, which could mean a significant impact on the already voluminous e-waste crisis.

The e-waste crisis may not be a top story on the evening news, but its dynamics are worthy of more attention. According to experts, the amount of e-waste worldwide is projected to skyrocket by the year 2017. In fact, Yale environmentalists predict a 33% jump to 65 million tons within the next three years.

From learning tool to e-waste: The journey of educational electronics

The journey of educational electronics began with a flood of laptops entering school systems around the country near the start of the new millennium. The laptops are typically loaded with educational software that prevents access to distracting items like the Internet and social media sites. Recently, the tide has turned toward tablets as the leading educational device schools prefer. The main decision currently on many educators’ minds is whether a tablet or laptop best fits modern educational needs.

Yet for environmentalists and recyclers the main questions may involve a different subject matter altogether. What about all the electronic waste that will be produced as schools shift into newer and higher levels of technological dependence? More importantly, will schools systems be as willing to recycle discarded educational electronics as they are to dole them out to eager student bodies?

Laptops and tablets: Leaders of the e-waste crisis

The e-waste in schools issue only adds to a much larger crisis specifically involving laptops and tablets. Even though tablets sales have declined since explosive growth in 2013, these devices are clearly a fixture in the electronics market and their increased production also signals increased disposal rates. The same is true for laptop PCs. Laptop PCs continue to be a go-to choice for individuals, businesses and schools alike, with the latter tending to purchase electronic devices in bulk.

Another issue involves the upgrades that laptops and tablets, particularly laptop PCs, must undergo on a regular basis. According to The Wall Street Journal, experts predict that 300 million of the 51 billion PCs in use today are up for major upgrades in the near future, and 20 to 50 million new devices may be purchased because of this, with most of the sales taking place in the U.S. This means major e-waste increases as old electronic devices are discarded and replaced with new ones.

This comes at a time when e-waste volumes are already astronomically high in the U.S. and abroad. According to the EPA, the U.S. alone discarded 2.37 million tons of e-waste in 2009 with only about 25% of that sent for recycling. By 2012, the U.S. recycling rate had increased to 29.1% percent. However, the rate is may not be sufficient to keep up with the continued growth of the consumer electronics market.

In fact, consumer electronics production and sales in the U.S. hit explosive growth in 2013. This is partly due to the constant demand for newer devices as technological development surges forward at a rapid pace. It is also due to the number of schools and businesses purchasing and using electronics on a larger scale.

Scrapping the one-to-one notion in educational systems could mean more e-waste

What does the e-waste crisis have to do with schools? Just over a decade ago, many school systems began developing on-to-one electronics programs in schools. One-to-one programs allow each student to obtain a laptop or tablet for educational use through their school. Since then, tablet and laptop sales have increased in grade schools across the country. Expected benefits included a more tech-savvy student body and cost savings for schools, which would no longer need to cover the expense of textbooks, paper and other traditional necessities.

The latest trend is an increase in tablet sales — particularly iPads — to schools. In 2012, Apple announced it had sold 1 million iPads to schools. According to Apple, there were 10 million iPads in schools in 2013 accounting for an estimated $436 million in revenue for the company. It’s only a drop in the hat of the more than 78 million tablets expected to be sold by the company last year. But that 1.2% of Apple revenue is a clear marker indicating the growing prevalence of educational electronics in schools.

Developers and curriculum writers are also taking note. Many have designed K-12 software that works with iPads to cover educational exercises and curriculum marketed to public and private schools. At the college level, developers team up with schools to present laptop PCs loaded with campus software and offered at reduced prices to students.

However, another trend involving one-to-one programs is also taking root. Many school systems are getting rid of one-to-one programs due to lack of budget resources and disagreement on how the electronics are being used by the students, who often find ways around protective software. School systems are also concerned about the lackluster results of adding new technology to student repertoires since, in some cases, it does not seem to aid in student achievement.

When these electronics become outdated or in need of an upgrade, schools can discard the old devices in anticipation of new devices, but that may only exacerbate the current e-waste problem. As school one-to-one programs begin to falter, the question remains: What about the e-waste issue sure to come to a head as more and more programs are scrapped in favor of different alternatives? The chance that the electronics used in such projects will become major additions to the current e-waste crisis could increase significantly.

Schools, be prepared to recycle

The amount of e-waste generated by schools in the coming years is sure to be a figure to watch. Schools should especially be prepared to recycle the devices using a socially responsible asset distribution program and a reliable recycler to handle the large volume of electronics reaching end-of life scenarios over the coming decade.

Also, schools should stay abreast of the many laws and regulations addressing the disposal of e-waste in order to ensure compliance on a regular basis. Overall, the e-waste issue in schools represents a perfect way to demonstrate ways that large organizations can dispose of electronics responsibly and minimize contributions to the global e-waste crisis while still reaching educational goals.