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How Electronics Are Recycled

By Earth911 |
Learn how used devices are kept out of the landfill.
Courtesy of Earth911 | Originally Published: 07/29/09

So you've just returned from an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling event after unloading your old computers, cell phones and televisions. But what happens next to ensure that these products avoid the landfill?

While some products, such as aluminum cans, do not require sorting or separation, e-waste is not composed of just one material. Electronic devices are constructed with many different materials, so recycling of e-waste is a more complex process.

Recycling E-Waste

To understand the e-waste recycling process, it's important to understand that e-waste recyclers (and in general, all recyclers) are interested in both saving these devices from landfills as well as getting the most value out of these materials. Electronics such as computers and televisions are made with some valuable metals, including copper and gold, which can be sold and then reused in alternative capacities.

From an environmental standpoint, the fact that these items are being reused is far more important than any monetary benefits of recovering these valuable materials. However, e-waste recyclers are also recycling and reusing materials that aren't nearly as valuable.

In general, as much as 99 percent of all materials from electronics are recycled by being reused in a different capacity or sold off. The vast majority of these materials are used for new electronic items, because some of the material (the plastic, for example), is already the right grade for electronic devices.

The material from electronics can be used for other products, such as plastic components that are used in the manufacture of lighters or wood composites.

Putting the Waste in E-Waste

If 99 percent of the material is recycled, that still leaves a small percentage that will end up in the landfill because it has no reuse value. So what materials fall into this category?

One example of this waste is wood paneling, such as on some of the older models of television sets. If you are looking to recycle an item like this, recycling is still a great option, as one percent waste is still much better than 100 percent. The good news is that many of the televisions and other electronics in circulation today do not have wood paneling on the front. If you check out Panasonic's page on the components of a television, wood paneling is not even listed.

Hazardous Waste Disposal

The other big issue regarding e-waste recycling is the end result for its hazardous materials, including mercury. While e-waste only accounts for two percent of the U.S.' garbage in landfills, it accounts for 70 percent of overall toxic garbage.

For e-waste recyclers, removing toxic materials is just as important as removing the most valuable materials, like gold and copper. For example, to remove the lead in computer monitor glass, the glass is placed in a furnace where the lead can be taken out.

What's your preferred way to green your e-waste — do you reuse, recycle, resell? Share your tips in the comments below!

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Joan M. 1 year ago
    I recommend folks know who their e-waste is going to. Ask the questions and be assured they aren't being harvested for the valuable metals then tossed into the landfill.
  • ev b. 4 years ago
    I recycle plastic water bottles at work. A lot of employees throw them in a waste basket, thinking one bottle will not hurt the environment. I educate the, and tell them 1 times millions of office workers does hurt.

  • Linda B. 5 years ago
    I recycle
  • keri B. 5 years ago
    i plan to recycle my home e waste
  • George L. 5 years ago
    I recycle phones at the phone store
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