E-Waste in America: What Is It and What You Can Do?

Y’all. Did you know that the global generation of e-waste has grown by 10 tons (9.2 Mt) since 2014 and is projected to grow to another 82 tons (74.7 Mt) by 2030?1 Yeah, me neither.

That’s a ton! (Well, 82 tons, actually.) Like, almost double in just 16 years.

Anyway, I just finished reading the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 report conducted by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and these numbers got me all fired up. So we did what we do here at Reviews.org, and we conducted a survey.

You wanna know how many Americans actually recycle their e-waste? Not many. In fact, 40% of Americans say they’ve never recycled any of their electronics.

Does that really surprise anyone, though? Hell, I’ve still got no less than three old iPhone boxes chilling in my closet right now.

Me to me: Recycle them, Kyle, you’ll never need them, my man.
Also, me to me: Keep them, my Preciousss.

But I have to be honest, until recently, I’ve never really thought about e-waste; let alone understood what it is or how it impacts the planet. And maybe that’s the problem. Not enough people care because too few people are aware. Let’s fix that toot sweet!

What is electronic waste?

To accurately define (and therefore understand) electronic waste, we need to understand something called EEE. Or more specifically, how EEE works.

What is EEE?

EEE stands for Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Why does that matter? It doesn’t, really. What does matter is that devices categorized as EEE use batteries and electrical circuitry as power supplies. Think TVs, cell phones, laptops, tablets . . . you get the idea.

So, what is e-waste?

According to the Global E-Waste Monitor, there are actually six general categories of Electrical and Electronic Equipment:

  1. Temperature exchange equipment: Think refrigerators, freezers, A/C units
  2. Screens and monitors: TVs, monitors, tablets, laptops
  3. Lamps: Think . . . lamps. Fluorescent, LED, high intensity discharge lamps
  4. Large equipment: Washer, dryer, dishwasher, stove, large copy machines, and printers
  5. Small equipment: Small electrical appliances, tools, vacuums, microwaves, etc.
  6. Small IT and Telecommunication equipment: Mobile phones, GPS devices, routers, etc.

Why is e-waste a problem?

Batteries and electrical power supplies are made of some really nasty stuff like mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).1

Info Box icon
“E-waste represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste”2

Their e-juices are bad for the e-nvironment, you see? The more EEE we create, means more EEE that eventually gets discarded, and the more toxic this whole garbage heap becomes. And We the People really, really like our shiny new EEE, so it’s no surprise that new electronics are generated at an accelerating rate both in the US and Worldwide.

Me to EEE: I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic?

E-waste generated per capita worldwide

The United States produces the 8th-most e-waste per capita globally. I know we’re all about those top 10 lists, but I’m not sure we should celebrate this time, folks.

E-Waste Generated per Capita by Country
Top 10 E-waste-producing countries generated in pounds per capita
RankCountryPounds per capita
1Norway57.3 lbs.
2Switzerland51.6 lbs.
3Denmark49.4 lbs.
4Australia47.8 lbs.
5Netherlands47.6 lbs.
6Iceland47.2 lbs.
7France46.3 lbs.
8United States46.3 lbs.
9Japan45.0 lbs.
10Belgium45.0 lbs.

While we don’t produce the most e-waste per capita in the US, we also don’t pick up after ourselves much either, especially when compared to other countries. For example, although Norway produces the most e-waste per capita, they also have a 72% collection rate, while the US has a collection rate of only 15%.3

A contributing factor? Only half of US states have legislation outlining electronic waste disposal.4

E-waste generated per capita in the US

Americans generate 46.3 pounds of e-waste per person.

That’s equivalent to:

  • 7 55” TVs
    OR
  • 14 laptops
    OR
  • 112 iPhones

With a 15% recycling rate, only 17 of those hypothetical 112 iPhones are properly recycled. What happens to the other 95?

What happens to our electronic waste?

Roughly 85% of EEE either gets incinerated, sent to landfills, stored in households (guilty), or recycled in informal operations.1 While different types of e-waste are disposed of differently, one thing is for sure: cell phones are a top contributor to e-waste in the US, with computer accessories not far behind. See the breakdown below.

Most commonly disposed of electronics

How can you limit your e-waste footprint?

Tips for Limiting Your Electronic Waste
  1. Reduce
    While it may be tempting to trade in that old-and-busted, last-year’s model iPhone for this year’s new hotness, if your device still works, you can reduce your electronic waste footprint by holding onto your gadgets a little longer.
  2. Reuse
    Reusing or repurposing an older device before tossing it out can help get more life out of your aging electronics. Hand down your old phone to a child, sibling, or friend. You can even use older phones as substitute entertainment storage devices, a makeshift dash cam, or even security cameras.
  3. Repair
    Instead of trashing your damaged electronics, look for ways to fix them up and keep them around.You can also look for repair programs, like Apple Care, offered by the device manufacturer or other repair services as offered by companies like Google, Samsung, and Microsoft.
  4. Recycle
    Eventually, you will need to find a final resting place for your old tech that’s not the closet. The absolute best thing you can do is find a place to recycle your old EEE.Check out this pretty legit locator tool, provided by the Consumer Technology, Association where you can enter your ZIP code and find places near you to recycle various tech.

Conclusion

Now that we know all about EEE, e-waste, and the things we can do to impact our footprint, it’s up to us to take action. Next time you’re replacing your old gadgets, appliances, TVs, or other electronics, go a step further than taking your trash can out to the curb and think about limiting your e-waste footprint. Say it with me now: reduce, reuse, recycle, repair!

Methodology

Reviews.org surveyed 1,000 Americans and asked about how they dispose of their technology and which devices are most frequently thrown away, donated, and recycled.

In addition, we analyzed e-waste data by country from globalewaste.org and compared e-waste generated per capita by country. We then converted America’s e-waste per capita to the equivalent weight in smartphones, laptops, and televisions to show the proportion of e-waste that is recycled versus disposed of in other ways in the US.

Sources

  1. Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G., “The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential,” December, 2020. Accessed, March 20, 2021.
  2. E-Waste, “11 Facts About E-Waste.” Accessed March 20, 2021.
  3. The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, “Norway,” 2019. Accessed March 20, 2021.
  4. The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, “United States of America,” 2019. Accessed March 20, 2021.