Where Does My E-Waste Go? 5 Things To Know About The E-Waste Recycling Process

You may be wondering, once you drop off your laptop at the local donation center, where exactly does your e-waste go? After all, the media has gone to great lengths to color the e-waste process as a questionable practice, fraught with the risk of your device actually ending up in a large unregulated dump in a flailing third-world country.

That’s not always the case, however, and in fact, there are a number of ways that collection center can handle your e-waste.The truth is, whether your electronic recycling process is governed by state regulations or recycler-led, your e-waste is more and more likely to end it up exactly where it should be shredded, repurposed and sent out of the waste stream.

1. Collection points abound.

One great thing about electronics recycling is that there are likely more places to send your devices than you know. In fact, the knowledge gap among consumers regarding collection points is a major inhibitor to the electronics recycling process – but it doesn’t have to be.

Many just aren’t sure what to do with their used electronics because they’re unaware of how the recycling process works in their area. A number of retailers such as Best Buy and Staples have worked diligently to ensure consumer are aware they can deposit electronics, including wires and cables, at their store for recycling by certified recyclers. Non-profits like Goodwill have also promoted their donation capabilities and partnership with certified recyclers. 

In addition, most states employ producer responsibility programs to address electronics recycling issues which means that many electronics can be shipped back to the original manufacturer for certified recycling, free of charge. Yet, there are still large numbers of the U.S. population – especially in rural areas – with little or no knowledge of how to recycle their devices or where the nearest electronics recycler is located. 

2. Hundreds of recyclers across the country will shred and repurpose your e-waste.

Hundreds of recyclers will take in your electronics throughout the U.S. These recyclers range from small operations to much more intense, multi-certified warehouses full of massive shredders and all the latest e-waste recycling technology.

Recyclers are not without regulations, however. Even in the absence of a federal mandate regulating the recycling process on a national level, recyclers must still adhere to governmental standards and often choose various certifications in order to enhance credibility and consumer trust.

3. Not all e-waste is exported.

One of the biggest criticisms concerning the e-waste recycling process is that recyclers don’t actually recycle the e-waste they receive. Instead, they ship it out to third world countries where costs are cheaper since the process is vastly unregulated at these destinations. 

While there are still traces of illegal e-waste exporting, the vast majority of recyclers must adhere to certifications and regulations that have banned illegal e-waste exports. This is a result mainly of the actions of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit effort to curb the export of e-waste to third world countries which began in the 1970’s. Finding a certified recycler can greatly cut the risk that your device will be illegally traded or dumped in the end.

4. One major goal of e-waste recycling is to keep electronics out of landfills, but there’s more.

The majority of states have in place a well-functioning and vibrant landfill ban. These bans prevent one of the most destructive aspects of e-waste – the pollution of soil, air and water due to hazardous chemical and metal components found inside electronics.

Today, 20 states have landfill bans in place for electronic devices. In states where no ban exists, consumers and recyclers must still adhere to federal EPA standards concerning hazardous materials. For instance, it’s important to know that lithium battery disposal is highly regulated regardless of whether a landfill ban is in place in your state.

Although the risk of hazardous materials seeping into the environment from landfills is a major one, preventing environmental detriment is not the only goal of the recycling process. Recovering and repurposing the byproducts of electronics recycling, such as glass, plastic and even more valuable materials such as gold, copper, silver, platinum and rare earth elements, can help manufacturers keep costs low and add value to the overall recycling process.

5. The recycling process includes materials recovery. (Yes, that means gold.)

Have you ever heard of “urban mining” and wondered what it could mean? Chances are you have heard of the term and that’s because the idea of recovering precious and rare minerals, metals and elements from the electronics devices that contain them is finally catching on.

Yes, that does include gold. Gold just so happens to be one of the best conductors of electricity on the planet and most of our present day electronics contain small amounts of gold (as well as other valuable materials) which can be recovered and reused or sold for profit.

Although the process of materials recovery can be costly and complicated, more and more are starting to recognize its benefit. Companies are stepping in to maximize the potential of electronic waste  through urban mining projects, setting the scene for e-waste to become one of the chief sources of some our most limited natural resources.

Keeping Tabs On Your E-waste

Though it may be difficult to tag and trace the whereabouts of your e-waste once you finally decide to donate it or send it out for recycling, rest assured your actions are well worth the effort. 

Even as the US. struggles to address the fast-evolving challenges of ubiquitous amounts of electronics devices sifting through the waste stream, no one in the country is completely without a place to recycle their electronics devices. Whether or not we’ll use these resources wisely, both to our own advantage and in a way that benefits the environment, always remains to be seen.