The Life Cycle of E-Waste

Our lives rely on technology. We work on computers, watch our favorite shows on services like Netflix, monitor our health with smartwatches and stay in touch with friends and family around the globe on our cellphones. These devices make our lives easier. Unfortunately, we also live in an era of planned obsolescence — everything you buy will fail at some point, forcing you to buy a new one.

We generate massive amounts of e-waste in our quest to have the newest, fastest and most exciting toy in our collection. What does the life cycle of e-waste look like, and what can we do to reduce the number of electronic devices ending up in landfills around the world?

The Life Cycle of E-Waste

What happens to your old cellphone or laptop when it’s reached the end of its life and you get rid of it? That depends mostly on where you live and how you dispose of it. If you live in one of the 19 states that have banned throwing old electronics away with the rest of your household garbage, your electronics are heading for the recycling plant. If not, they’re going to the landfill.

eWaste Life Cycle

If you do recycle your old electronics, it can go one of two ways. If they’re beyond repair — either because of damage or age — they get harvested for their base components. If they’re still pretty new, recyclers will often refurbish or repair them and sell them at a discount, extending their life cycle.

In spite of our best efforts, it’s up to the consumer to ensure their old devices make it to the recycling plant. Currently, only about 12.5% of e-waste gets recycled, leaving millions of metric tons to founder in landfills around the country.

The Impact of E-Waste

E-waste isn’t only taking up space in landfills around the world. It is also adversely impacting the environment. As your old phone or laptop breaks down, it can release all sorts of toxic chemicals to the surrounding soil and water. Lead, arsenic and cadmium all help your cellphone function, but these elements need careful reclaiming during recycling.

Suppose these heavy metals and toxic chemicals make their way into local groundwater. In that case, water processing plants must modify their processes to remove them from the drinking water before it makes its way to homes and businesses. The best way to avoid all these problems is to send discarded or broken electronic devices to your local recycling facility. However, as long as we rely on consumers to take responsibility for their recycling, we’ll continue to end up with electronics in landfills, causing problems.

Making a Difference

Electronics recycling is challenging, but we need to take the necessary steps to keep these devices out of landfills, where they can release toxic chemicals that seep into the surrounding environment. While planned obsolescence is in play, we will continue to need to replace our electronic devices, but we can be smarter about what we do with them when they reach the end of their lives.


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Start by focusing on recycling. Politicians can legislate that we send our electronic devices to the recycling bin instead of the landfill. Still, until people start to understand the impact of our consumer culture and the life cycle of e-waste, we won’t make the changes we need. Start small — recycle the old devices in your household. It might not seem like much, but small steps can add up quickly when everyone pitches in.