(CNN) — If you have one or more drawers full of old gadgets and cords, you’re not alone.

Decades of pressure from the tech industry to “innovate or die” have spawned a long list of flashy and useful home tech products, but many of these same devices also need to be replaced at about the same (fast) pace that new technology emerges.

The result of this so-called planned obsolescence, combined with a limited number of options to repair older devices over the years, is a tsunami of electronic waste, also known as e-waste. And the consequences go far beyond the headache of figuring out what to do with the clutter hidden inside your home.

“Planned obsolescence just makes it worse. People now expect to get a new computer every three to four years, a new phone every two years,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, an e-waste watchdog group based in New York. in Seattle. “It’s a mountain that keeps growing.”

The data The most recent data from the United Nations indicates that the world generated a staggering 53.6 metric tons of e-waste in 2019, and only 17.4% of that was recycled. The burden and damage of electronic waste often falls on developing countries. The US Environmental Protection Agency esteem that an “unspecified amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to refuse imports or handle these materials properly.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that the increasing disposal and processing of e-waste can cause a variety of “adverse health impacts on children,” including changes in lung function, DNA damage and an increased risk of some chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease later in life.

In addition, there are more than 18 million children and adolescents “actively involved” in the informal e-waste processing industry, the WHO warned. Children and teenagers are often used to scouring mountains of electronic waste for valuable materials such as copper and gold “because their little hands are more dexterous than those of adults,” the WHO said.

The e-waste issue “has to do with global environmental justice,” Puckett said. “This is about preventing rich countries from dumping their waste and dirty technologies in developing countries.”

A man sits in front of electronic waste from computers at a workshop in New Delhi, India, in July 2020.

The growing environmental crisis now draws the attention of policymakers from Europe to the United States, as well as communities in developing countries where e-waste has historically been offshored.

EU officials last month approved a new law requiring all phones and electronic devices to use a brand-independent standard charger, with the potential to limit the number of different cables the average consumer needs to have. Three progressive US lawmakers in a letter urged the United States to do the same.

Senators Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said the new EU policy “has the potential to significantly reduce e-waste and help consumers who are tired of having to rummage through drawers full of tangled chargers to find a compatible one, or buy a new one”, in a letter addressed to the United States Secretary of Commerce. The senators alluded to the contentious bipartisan issue of “taking on powerful technology companies” in the interests of consumers and the environment.

For now, however, regulation around e-waste exists primarily at the state level, and there is little sign that federal policy will move forward in the near future. In their absence, the onus remains on consumers — and businesses — to take the lead and find better ways to deal with outdated electronic devices.

What consumers and businesses can do about it

When Corey Dehmey worked in corporate IT departments, he had to figure out what to do with hundreds of company computers that were no longer up to date. Now, as executive director of the non-profit organization Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), he is part of a group trying to tackle the e-waste crisis by strengthening cooperation between government, the private sector and consumers.

“E-waste is the result of not planning the product through its life cycle,” said Dehmey. “We’re just reacting to a problem that we created years ago. So if we want to be on top of this, we have to think about these things from the beginning: what we’re designing and what we as consumers are also buying.”

To do that, SERI introduced and monitors its own certification standards for e-waste recycling that ensure facilities properly dispose of e-waste. It also organizes events for companies and other interested parties and engages in advocacy activities to pressure companies and governments to adopt more sustainable approaches in the development of electronic products.

“We have to find ways to use [un dispositivo electrónico] longer, repair it, reuse it,” Dehmey said, noting that this will require mindset changes from both consumers and businesses.

In recent months, there have been some reasons for optimism on this front. The rise of e-waste has led to increased pressure on manufacturers to ease restrictions on repair devices for individuals and independent repair shops in a push known as the “right to repair” movement. Last year, President Joe Biden passed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue rules requiring businesses to allow DIY repairs, and the FTC pledged to ” eradicate” restrictions on illegal repair.

Now a handful of tech companies have launched initiatives to help fix old devices. At the beginning of this year, Manzana Y Samsung launched their self-service repair shops, offering spare parts for users looking for smartphone repairs. Google also promised that parts to repair Pixel phones will be available to the public later this year.

A sea of ​​electronic waste piled 7 feet high litters the landscape at Westmoreland Cleanways and Recycling in Unity, Pennsylvania, on Friday, March 24, 2017.

Several coalitions have also sprung up in recent years to give consumers the option to dispose of their devices responsibly. Puckett helped launch the e-Stewards e-waste recycling initiative, for example, which certifies and audits electronics recyclers to make sure they properly dispose of e-waste using “very rigorous standards.”

With this tool, consumers can Search nearby recycling centers. SERI also offers a online tool to find a certified recycling center.

Jeff Seibert, the chief provocateur (yes, that’s his real title) at SERI, also advises consumers to check with their local municipality to see if they have a designated plan for recycling e-waste. A handful of US retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, also have programs that allow consumers to bring in e-waste for recycling in the absence of broader infrastructure. Other companies, including Apple, have programs to offer credits or free recycling in exchange for trading in used devices.

Before choosing to donate or recycle used electronics, the EPA recommends that you consider upgrading a computer’s hardware or software rather than purchasing a new product. If you choose to recycle, the EPA encourages consumers to take back any batteries that must be recycled separately. The agency says that recycling one million laptops saves energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 American homes in one year. For every million cell phones that are recycled, the agency says that 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.

Aside from these options, Seibert simply urges consumers to start thinking about electronics like we think about cars: We don’t throw our vehicles away when we need new tires or if the windshield breaks.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” Seibert said. “So we have to give them the resources to be able to do that, and that’s still a work in progress.”



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