Basic Information about Electronics Stewardship

According to a recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association, 2013 Exit, 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): Facts and Figures 2013 report shows that Americans generated 3.14 million tons of obsolete electronic products in 2013, about one percent of the municipal solid waste stream. The Advancing SMM report also noted 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.

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Life Cycle Stages of Electronics

The life cycle of electronic products includes the following stages:

  1. Raw materials acquisition and manufacturing.
  2. Purchase and use. Covers both “first use” and “second use.” First use indicates use by the original purchaser of the product, and second use indicates when the first user no longer uses the electronic product and sells or gives the product to another person.
  3. Storage. Concerned with how long users store products when they have finished using them, thus affecting when a product is ready for end-of-life management.
  4. End-of-life management. Products at their end-of-life are managed by one of two practices:
    • Collected for recycling. May be subsequently reused, refurbished or recycled for materials recovery.
    • Disposed of primarily in landfills. Combustible components may be collected and sent to waste-to-energy incinerators.

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Sustainable Electronics Management

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.

Recycling electronics

If donation for reuse or repair is not a viable option, households and business can send their used electronics for recycling.

Buying green

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.

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Benefits of Electronics Stewardship

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

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