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E-waste and a National Repair Bonus

Updated: May 29, 2022

Electronic waste is a growing menace. To end it, we need a national response.

My friend Quincey has a kitchen drawer that is a repository for his family’s outdated electronics. He wants to recycle those old phones, calculators, and gaming devices; he just doesn’t know how to do it. Quincey’s not alone. Lots of Americans have similar drawers in their homes. Not sure what to do with that waste, they opt to keep collecting, and the junk in those drawers keeps growing.

These discarded phones and electronics make up a tiny fraction of what is called electronic waste (e-waste). To get an idea of how significant this waste stream is, wrap your mind around this number:

In 2016 the US produced 6.9 million tons of e-waste. That’s about 46 pounds for every person.

Here’s an equally unfortunate number:

The US currently recycles only 12.5 percent of that e-waste. Where does the remaining 87.5 percent end up? No one knows for sure.

What is e-waste?

When our electronic gadgets reach “the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler,” that’s considered e-waste. Some of these gadgets still work; others quit working years ago. But they all contain plastic, motherboards, and heavy metals. Sadly, most of this waste is landfilled. One estimate suggests that two-thirds of heavy metals in US landfills come from e-waste, while they account for less than 2 percent of the landfills’ total volume.

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals are a particular group of dense metals that can negatively impact human health. In tiny amounts, they do our body good. But when concentrated, health problems are quick to follow. Heavy metals also help make electronics light and zippy. When those electronics wear out, they’re tossed and likely end up in a landfill. Once there, the metals can leach into nearby water sources and do bad things.

What are we doing about it?

Increasingly, manufacturers and retailers are becoming more proactive about this issue. For example, retailers like Apple, Best Buy, Staples, and Walmart will accept e-waste, even if the electronics weren’t purchased through them. This is a start, but we’ve got a long way to go, as evident by online returns. Many retailers don’t have the resources to handle them properly, while others lack the necessary protocols. Ultimately, 40 percent of returns are trashed.

[F]ew states maintain proper records. Therefore, any attempts to quantify how much e-waste is recycled are difficult.

What would help is if we had federal laws that addressed e-waste management—at the moment, we don’t. Fortunately, 25 states and the District of Columbia have e-waste laws. The other states might have programs, but they are voluntary and lack teeth. Beyond that, few states maintain proper records. Therefore, any attempts to quantify how much e-waste is recycled are difficult.

Screws and glue

According to a recent survey, 25 percent of smartphone users wanted to repair their phone but ended up replacing it for several reasons, the top two being repair costs and inconvenience. Likewise, 34 percent of consumers decided to replace their appliances for similar reasons. There’s interest. Unfortunately, it’s dampened by repair costs, inconvenience, and other issues. Also, manufacturers aren’t helping because their gadgets seem to contain more specialty screws and glue that make repairs challenging or impossible.

What can be done to reignite that excitement?

Austria might have an answer. In March, a national repair bonus went into effect. It subsidizes half the repair costs for appliances and electronics, up to €200 per repair. The response by Austrians has been robust.

Interest is beginning to take root here in the US. Portland, Oregon, is piloting a repair voucher program, while other cities are looking to implement something similar. In July 2021 President Biden signed an executive order that compels manufacturers to make gadgets easier to repair.

We can and should do more. If repair costs are prohibitive, make them more affordable. If repairing electronics is inconvenient, make repairing them easier. Our e-waste is a national problem that requires a national response, rather than the patchwork of state laws and inefficiently run programs that we currently have. Contact your federal representatives and demand they start this process by first developing a national repair bonus.

Junk drawers unite

Quincey plans on recycling those gadgets soon. In fact, he’d like to reclaim that drawer by getting rid of all the bric-a-brac he's been holding on to. According to OnePoll, a survey marketing agency, 88 percent of Americans have at least one junk drawer. Of those, eight out of 10 describe their drawers as "cleaning black holes." I mentioned this to Quincey. Despite the odds, he believes he'll succeed. I wish him luck!

Further reading

20 Staggering E-waste Facts in 2021.” Earth911, October 11, 2021.

Forti, Vanessa, Cornelis Peter Baldé, Ruediger Kuehr, and Garam Bel. “The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, Flows and the Circular Economy Potential.” United Nations University, 2020.

Gladstone, Neil. “The United States Has a Colossal E-waste Problem. This Is Why.” digitaltrends, February 27, 2020.

Larmer, Brook. “E-waste Offers an Economic Opportunity as Well as Toxicity.” New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2018.

Sieg, Klaus. “Don’t Toss It, Fix It! Europe Is Guaranteeing Citizens the ‘Right to Repair.’” Reasons to be Cheerful, January 11, 2021.

Turrentine, Jeff. “At 59 Million Tons, Our E-waste Problem Is Getting Out of Control.” Natural Resources Defense Council, July 24, 2020.

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