Basic Information about Electronics Stewardship
According to a recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association, 2013Exit, the average American household uses about 28 electronic products such as personal computers, mobile phones, televisions and electronic readers (e-readers). With an ever increasing supply of new electronic gadgets, EPA's Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM): 2014 Fact Sheet and associated data tables show that Americans generated 3.36 million tons of obsolete electronic products in 2014, about one percent of the municipal solid waste stream. Also of note is the following:
- Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year.
- One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States.
On this page:
- Life Cycle Stages of Electronics
- Sustainable Electronics Management
- Benefits of Electronics Stewardship
Improved life cycle management of electronics, through source reduction of materials used, increasing reuse, refurbishing, extending the life of products, and recycling of electronics, can reduce the total quantity of waste that needs to be managed domestically and globally. The life cycle approach is aligned with EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy. The hierarchy ranks the various management strategies from most environmentally preferred to the least and emphasizes reducing, reusing, and recycling as a key element in sustainable materials management.
The life cycle of electronic products includes the following stages:
Raw or virgin materials such as oil, iron, gold, palladium, platinum, copper and critical elements are found in a myriad of high-tech electronics. They play crucial roles in products affecting our daily lives. These elements and materials are mined from the earth, transported and processed. These activities use large amounts of energy and produce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and a drain on our natural resources. Source reducing raw materials can save natural resources, conserve energy and reduce pollution.
A life cycle analysis is useful for supplying the materials used for manufacturing as well as manufacturing electronics with the environment in mind. Source reduction is important in manufacturing as environmentally preferable electronics will use less materials overall, use more recycled materials and be more durable and recyclable. In turn, the overall impact of the product on human health and the environment will be reduced.
The first step in using electronics sustainably involves purchasing equipment that has been designed with environmentally preferable attributes.
Manufacturers have a responsibility to create products for longevity, durability, reusability and recyclability; consumers play a significant role in maintaining their electronics. Some tips to save energy and increase a product’s lifespan are powering down the electronic device or putting it in standby mode when not actively in use, using energy efficient appliances (products that display the ENERGY STAR label), reducing brightness and printing documents double-sided.
Used electronics are collected at community drop-off points, through manufacturer mail-in take back and warranty programs and at certain electronics retailers. To help ensure that used electronics are managed responsibly, it is best to use a certified electronics recycler. After collection, reusable electronics are refurbished and resold, and recyclables are sent to recovery facilities to be sorted, cleaned and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Unfortunately, in some cases electronics are disposed of as waste to be collected by waste haulers and landfilled.
Modern landfills are engineered facilities designed to receive specific kinds of waste, including municipal solid waste (MSW), construction and demolition debris (C&D) and hazardous waste which are deposited for final disposal and covered. These units are selected and designed to minimize the chance of release of hazardous waste into the environment. Once in landfills, the precious metals and other materials in these products cannot be recovered.
Refurbished electronics are electronics that have been updated and repaired for resale. Reuse of used electronics extends product lifespans and contributes to the source reduction of raw materials.
Domestic recycling includes sorting, dismantling, mechanical separation and recovery of valuable materials. Recycling of used electronics can yield materials (e.g., gold, copper, glass, aluminum) that can be returned to the supply chain to be used again, reducing raw materials used and the overall need for disposal. Over time, better and more efficient recycling technologies can be developed.
EPA encourages electronics recyclers to become certified. Certified electronics recyclers have demonstrated to accredited, independent third-party auditors that they continually meet specific high environmental standards and safely manage used electronics. Once certified, continual oversight by the independent accredited certifying body holds the recycler to the particular standard.
Electronic devices and technologies continue to advance and increase in number. These technologies have become critical to our way of life and to our growing economy. With these technologies, however, comes the increasing challenge of protecting human health and the environment from the potentially harmful effects associated with their improper handling and disposal.
A long-term sustainable approach towards electronics stewardship is necessary both at work and at home. With the prevalence of electronics in mind, the federal government is committed to being a responsible consumer of electronics and a leader of electronics stewardship in the United States. Sustainable electronics management involves the following practices:
Reusing and donating electronics
Preventing waste in the first place is preferable to any waste management option, including recycling. Donating used (but still operating) electronics for reuse extends the lives of valuable products and keeps them out of the waste stream for a longer period of time.
If donation for reuse or repair is not a viable option, households and business can send their used electronics for recycling.
Environmentally responsible electronics use involves not only proper end-of-life disposition of obsolete equipment, but also purchasing new equipment that has been designed with environmentally preferable attributes.
Increasing sustainable electronics management efforts can create green jobs, lead to more productive reuse of valuable materials, increase the value of American exports, and support a vibrant American recycling and refurbishing industry. If done properly, the United States can increase its domestic recycling efforts, reduce harm from exports of electronics waste (e-waste) being handled unsafely in developing countries, strengthen domestic and international markets for viable and functional used electronic products, and prevent health and environmental threats at home and abroad.
Recycling electronics helps reduce pollution that would be generated while manufacturing a new product and the need to extract valuable and limited virgin resources. Electronic recycling also reduces the energy used in new product manufacturing.
Donating electronics allows schools, nonprofit organizations and lower-income families to obtain equipment that they otherwise could not afford. Businesses can also take advantage of tax incentives for donated computer equipment.
Green electronics contain fewer toxic constituents. The use of recycled materials in new products promotes the following benefits:
- More energy efficient (e.g., showing the Energy Star label)
- More easily upgraded or disassembled
- Use minimal packagings
- Offers leasing or takeback options
- Meets performance criteria and shows they are more environmentally preferable