Electronic waste in the US is changing
Americans spent $400 billion in 2020 on technologies like smartphones, computers, TVs and streaming media. Electronics have found their way into every aspect of modern life and work. But as products get replaced faster and repaired less, electronics are also finding their way into our trash, prompting some to call electronic waste (e-waste) the fastest growing waste stream in the world.
But in the U.S., electronic waste is actually starting to decline. A new study, which I, Callie Babbitt, co-authored with Shahana Althaf, shows that the total weight of used electronics discarded by households shrunk 10 percent since its peak in 2015. The main reasons: technological innovation and shifting consumer preferences. For instance, households replaced bulky tube TVs with slimmer flat panel models — a shift spurred by the analog-to-digital TV transition a decade ago.
This is good news for some environmental issues. Lightweight products require less natural resources to make and less electricity to operate. The phenomenon of device convergence means that a multi-function smartphone replaces separate phones, cameras, video recorders, media players and handheld gaming consoles. New products also contain less hazardous materials, in contrast to leaded glass contained in old cathode ray tubes or mercury bulbs found in early liquid crystal display (LCD) screens.
Unfortunately, many changes that make electronics lighter and more efficient end up making them harder to reuse and recycle. With less than 40 percent of used electronics being recovered in the U.S., we are wasting an enormous opportunity to capture the valuable materials and components they contain. We are also missing out on their potential contribution to the new administration’s ambitious plans to tackle climate change.
Reuse, remanufacturing and recycling are critical to creating a circular economy and meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. These strategies can lower the carbon emissions of manufacturing, reduce mining impacts and create new jobs and revenue streams.
E-waste is also rich in metals and rare earth elements needed to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines and motors and lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EV). Recovering these resources from used smartphones and laptops can accelerate adoption of low-carbon energy and create a domestic supply of minerals that the U.S. typically imports from other countries.
Policy will play a key role in realizing this potential, but the U.S. lacks comprehensive federal e-waste regulations. Over 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to develop federal policy through a multi-year effort involving a broad group of stakeholders, but the effort fell apart due to lack of agreement over financing mechanisms.
Due to federal inaction, states began to pass their own laws to create and fund electronics recycling. To date, 25 states have some type of regulated e-waste program. Each is slightly different, but most use an extended producer responsibility model requiring manufacturers who sell common electronics in that state to help fund their recycling.
But some state programs are now reporting lower collection volumes year-over-year. This trend is not due to fewer or less convenient collection options. Rather, the same technology shifts that make electronics lighter, like declining obsolete tube TVs, are now reaching recyclers. This trend is particularly evident in well-established state programs, such as California and Oregon, which saw over 10 percent declines from 2018 to 2019, or Vermont that dropped 6 percent.
This decline is particularly challenging for those states that set collection targets based on pounds recycled. Some of these targets are set as a percentage of new products that manufacturers sell into that state. But as products sold get lighter, this mismatch means it is increasingly difficult for states and the obligated manufacturers to keep collecting at a pace to meet their targets.
Another big issue is that state policies don’t actually cover many common electronics now being purchased. Smartphones, smart speakers and streaming devices are all on the rise, but they are rarely included in state e-waste laws. Neither are solar panels, automotive electronics or other smart home products and appliances, which will be major contributors to the future e-waste stream. Unfortunately, updating e-waste laws to include new products requires rewriting and passing regulations agreed upon by regulators, manufacturers and recyclers alike.
But some new approaches are now being considered. Illinois recently changed their e-waste law to replace pounds-based collection targets in favor of a “convenience-based” standard that requires manufacturers to fund collection sites according to population density. The goal is to provide more access to recycling, but not be concerned about how much or little volume is received. The Illinois law also covers more types of electronics, but still does not mandate recycling the latest smart devices and appliances or allow a mechanism to add these as technology advances.
What about the other half of the country that does not have a law in place? These states still may have local collection programs and are included in voluntary national efforts from retailers and manufacturers. However, collection programs may be hit-or-miss depending on where you live, and some people may find it easier to discard used electronics in the trash rather than seek out recycling options.
Beyond the “patchwork” of state policies and local programs, advancing U.S. e-waste management will require comprehensive action on multiple fronts. One need is investment in recycling infrastructure to build capability for recovering high value and scarce materials. Another pathway is green design of electronics, whether through electronics purchasing standards or extended producer responsibility that requires product designs be easier to disassemble and repair. Policies that emphasize education and information sharing may spur consumer awareness of and participation in e-waste programs.
The spillover benefit of these approaches is the electronics industry becoming more resilient to future disruptions, whether from supply chain shortages during a pandemic or trade policies that limit downstream plastic markets. The greatest benefit, however, can arise from capturing the sustainability benefits of electronics, without paying a high environmental price.
Callie Babbitt is an associate professor of Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology. Shahana Althaf is a postdoctoral Researcher in Industrial Ecology at Yale University. They authored the research study on changes in the U.S. electronic waste stream, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Consumer Technology Association and the Staples Sustainable Innovation Lab. Jason Linnell is the executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling.