By Veena Clay September 17, 2014

Carbon emissions are often to blame when it comes to environmental issues like climate change and global warming. Many scientists have by now accepted that carbon emissions are at least one leading source of environmental disruption causing a number of changes to atmospheric conditions, but this fact does not go undisputed. A slew of experts also claim the opposite.

Despite the debates, it’s clear that human-emitted carbon as well as carbon from a number of other sources such as coal plants and fossil fuels have a significant impact on the way our environment behaves over time. How does e-cycling factor into the challenge of reducing harmful carbon emissions, and can it cut carbon emissions in a significant way?

Definitions: Carbon emissions and greenhouses gases

First, it may help to offer up a few definitions. Carbon emissions are merely a small percentage of the total variety of greenhouse gases emitted into earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis. Greenhouse gases are responsible for trapping radiation from the sun, thus keeping temperature levels in balance for life-sustaining conditions here on earth. When too much heat is trapped in the atmosphere, the result is global warming and eventually, climate change.

Beyond carbon emissions, several types of greenhouse gases assist with trapping radiation. These include methane from livestock landfills and mining, fluoridated gases from leaking coolant and manufacturing practices, and other gases like CFCs that can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Other factors also contribute to atmospheric temperature and heat radiation. The earth’s ability to reflect light from the sun as well as variations in the sun’s energy can also be relevant issues when addressing the causes of global warming and climate change.

Carbon emissions are particularly important because they can potentially cause the most damage to earth’s sustainability. This is because CO2 levels correlate directly to the amount of heat present in the atmosphere. The more carbon emitted from earth processes and human activity, the more heat there is in the atmosphere, and the more the earth is warmed beyond the delicate balance necessary to maintain habitable conditions.

Carbon emissions and recycling

Recycling can help reduce the amount of carbon emitted from electronic devices, and in some cases can play a significant role in decreasing the harmful effects of global warming.

When electronics are manufactured, a significant amount of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. Indeed, the entire life cycle of an electronic device, from production to disposal, can produce a significant amount of carbon dioxide gas. As the amount of electronic devices being manufactured on a daily basis continues to skyrocket, the cumulative effect is a large amount of carbon dioxide gas entering the atmosphere.

According to the National Ocean Service, recycling just half of the amount of waste in one household can reduce 2,400 pounds of carbon emitted to the atmosphere per year. A 2009 report by the EPA also sheds light on the positive effects of recycling. According to the report, reducing packaging and paper products, extending the lifetime of computers and other electronic devices and recycling could reduce CO2 emissions by 354 million metric tons per year.

How recycling electronics reduces carbon emissions

Recycling electronics reduces carbon emissions in a number of specific ways. At the manufacturing level, electronics require large amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce and transport. Some devices, such as cell phones and tablets, require mining of precious and semiprecious metals to produce key components. Each of these processes is a heavy hitter when it comes to CO2 emissions. In fact, fossil fuel energy production is the leading source of CO2 emissions around the globe.

When an electronic device is recycled or reused, it means that fewer fossil fuels are needed, and a reduction in fossil fuels often leads to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

In addition, manufacturing goods from recycled materials can also lead to a decreased need for fossil fuel energy as well as less significant need to mine the materials needed for key components. Also, reusing electronic devices, through buyback programs or asset recovery systems, for instance, is an excellent way to reduce the energy needed for transport as well as for the manufacturing and production of new electronic devices. When these types of energy demands decrease, less CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Counting carbon-emission reduction

A good way to gauge the amount of carbon emissions released into the earth’s atmosphere for any given electronic device is to use a carbon footprint calculator. These can be found online and help users to understand the impact that recycling electronics can have on reducing emissions. Some carbon footprint calculators also include nifty equivalents to further drive home the message.

For instance, one carbon calculator estimates that recycling 10 televisions could prevent 254 pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere — the equivalent of 43 gallons of gasoline, or saving 10 trees. Recycling computers has an even greater impact. Ten recycled computers could reduce emissions by 811 pounds — the equivalent of saving 31 trees, recycling 1,176 plastic bottles or 5,409 aluminum cans, and conserving 138 gallons of gasoline.

Trends in carbon-emission reduction

Currently, Brazil leads the world in carbon-emission reduction. Reducing deforestation has caused a significant boost in carbon footprint reduction for the country. However, Brazil is not well known for its electronic recycling efforts. Instead, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea lead the way in electronics recycling around the world. Yet, South Asia is known for its large amount of black carbon emissions, although measures are underway to curb these emissions through much-needed greenhouse gas legislation throughout Asia, especially in South Korea.

Clearly, reducing carbon emissions and recycling electronics are two practices that seldom successfully occur hand-in-hand. Yet, one can only imagine the positive effects of combining the two practices across a single geographic region or country and the stellar results that could ensue from such an undertaking.