American Recycler did a story on the ever-evolving challenges of e waste disposal — and turned to GER President Kristina Picciotti for answers
The e waste stream in the U.S. and throughout the world is becoming larger each year. What can we do to tackle it? American Recycler interviewed our own Kristina Picciotti, CEO of Global Electronic Recycling, to find the answers to the growing challenge of e waste disposal.
The article, published in late December, touches on a lot of issues of importance to both businesses and the general public. Here’s a recap.
Reducing the e-waste mountain
First of all, consider the volume of electronic devices that your business purchases and discards every year. Then, multiply by millions and you get the picture. The e waste mountain is enormous. In 2021 alone, the world generated about 57 million tons of e waste with the U.S. contributing 7 to 8 million tons.
The good news? As Kristina points out, businesses and consumers are increasingly aware of the significance of electronic recycling and voluntarily try to do the right thing. Challenges are, however, mounting on several fronts.
Lack of streamlined regulations for e-waste disposal
Efforts to encourage responsible private and corporate electronic recycling are happening across the United States. A myriad of requirements applies to consumers, businesses, and manufacturers to facilitate e waste disposal. For example, 25 states have adopted e waste laws, but the framework can be confusing, yet crucial to understand to avoid penalties and fines.
“The recycling requirements are different in each state, which, in my opinion, makes it more difficult and more costly for businesses to manage. I believe the U.S. and the world need better incentives for businesses to recycle their e waste,” Kristina explains.
Similarly, Kristina says it should be easier for consumers to recycle electronics. If people were able to sort electronics as easily as paper and plastic in a household recycling bin, participation rates would rise, she tells American Recycler.
“America can do better with the right resources, programs and education for the public as well as a unified system for commercial e waste recycling throughout the country.”
Upgrading to ‘latest and greatest’
When a brand-new smartphone is launched to great fanfare, the desire to upgrade is understandable. Although Kristina says the constant churn of new models may seem like an opportunity that electronics recyclers jump on, there’s more to the story. These new devices typically contain less precious metals, high-end components, and base metals, which, by extension, impact resale value.
When a revenue stream turns to a trickle, Kristina says businesses and consumers may become less interested in recycling.
“Electronics that are being produced with low precious metal content, high amounts of plastics and cheap base metals pose a big problem for the e waste industry as a whole. That said, there is still plenty of opportunity to be successful in the e waste recycling industry for now. The best way for an e recycler to remain profitable is to continually improve upon its processes to find every ounce of value within the electronic device.”
Proliferation of plastics
Skyrocketing sales of electronics do not only lead to more e waste down the road. Kristina cautions it also results in more plastics than downstream recyclers can feasibly process. Any solution to cutting back e waste, in other words, needs to include improved plastics recycling. It also requires a substantial reduction in the use of the material altogether.
The toll of COVID-19
The pandemic has left no industry untouched. And it has affected day-to-day behavior and purchasing patterns. For example, the first three quarters of 2020 saw a drop of 5 million tons of e waste produced as economic activity ground to a halt amid lockdowns, travel bans, and quarantines.
Once lockdowns eased and production began again, the e waste stream picked back up. For the electronics recycling industry, it was a challenging period with temporary — and, in some instances, permanent — closures.
Kristina explains in American Recycler, “Eventually, in 2020, the e waste recycling industry was deemed an essential operation. It was allowed to reopen. However, the supply of e waste from corporations slowed down temporarily. It was due to the impact on the closures of those businesses. Additionally, many large corporations furloughed and terminated positions in order to keep their profits high while the quarantines were in place.”
…but it also brought new opportunities
The reshuffling of personnel at many companies meant GER had to adjust, too. Kristina says GER seized the chance to build new relationships to keep the inbound e waste streams alive.
“We also had to educate people in those corporations on what the recycling program entailed and the importance of continuing their recycling programs,” she says. “That effort meant we had to place more emphasis on education and business development, which ultimately was very positive overall.”
…and increased demand for re-useable electronics
Lockdowns and disruptions to global travel caused supply chain havoc and chip shortages. Consumers, at the same time, scoured online marketplaces. They looked for laptops, gaming equipment, and other electronics to support new work-from-home and entertainment demands. But, as many discovered, brand-new items were often out of stock. This dynamic, in turn, fueled resale markets.
“These items have become a bit more profitable for e waste recyclers and for corporations that are recycling those items, since the beginning of the COVID pandemic,” Picciotti says.
To get e waste disposal right and to reduce the impact of electronics on people and the planet will take a concerted effort. Consumers, manufactures, businesses, recyclers — everyone has to contribute.
“The challenge the world faces is that people need to understand how much of the earth is destroyed. They need to understand how many workers and citizens in developing nations are harmed. And they need to understand how long it takes the earth to regenerate. Pumping out more electronics requires mining for required resources like gold.
“I believe it begins with manufacturers producing higher quality, longer-lasting and upgradable electronic devices. It may sound bad for the e-waste industry, but it’s not. At my company, Global Electronic Recycling, I would happily recycle a lesser volume of electronic devices that are of higher quality than to recycle larger amounts of cheap electronics.”