Don’t Just Toss Your Devices. Repair Them. Better Yet. Donate.

August 8, 2018

Recycling, reuse and composting have become fairly common practices in our lives thanks to conservation education efforts over the past few decades. If anyone you know still tosses bottles in the trash, they at least have enough knowledge and self-awareness that shaming them may inspire a tiny baby bit of remorse. What may surprise you is that responsible disposal of electronics occurs at almost the same pathetic rate as plastic: roughly 30 percent. What shouldn’t come as any surprise is that there are many more toxic substances inside of our cell phones, tablets, computers, televisions and furbies that we throw away after sitting neglected on a shelf for two decades, staring at you blankly with dead eyes.

After spending a week with a phone screen that elicited such comments as “oof, are you going to get a new one soon?” and “throw that in the garbage,” as I was waiting for a replacement screen to be delivered, it got me thinking about our habits with electronics and why otherwise altruistic waste disposers tend to regard electronics as less harmful. It may be the frequency (it’s only once every few years, after all) or it may be the innate desire to get a new toy (an intentional blind-eye), but either way we need to consider where these devices end up and make ourselves aware of the facts.

Over a billion cell phones are manufactured every year and most of them won’t be used for longer than 18 months. It’s estimated that over $60 million worth of trace metals are thrown into a landfill every year. Additionally, it takes an absurd amount of oil, water and toxic chemicals to manufacture even a single cell phone. There’s not only an environmental cost to throw one away, but there’s a huge environmental cost in purchasing a replacement.

How can we curb these numbers while the manufacturing rates continue to increase?

The first answer is obvious: Repair your devices. A screen replacement or battery, or keyboard or whatever, is far cheaper and not only keeps some nerd like myself busy but also keeps your device out of a landfill. This is far and away the least impactful option if you have broken electronics. Imagine if you left your car in the ditch every time it got a flat tire. Start thinking about your electronics as investments and this concept won’t bother you nearly as much. Stop selling yourself short as “tech illiterate” and you will realize how easy it is if you follow the instructions.

The second option is to recycle your devices in a facility whose sole purpose is to strip and sort the parts from these devices. They are typically non-profits, like Tech Dump in Minneapolis. Recycling through Hennepin County is a decent option too, but far more will end up in a landfill anyway. Dedicated non-profits have the knowledge and resources to maximize the potential of every piece of metal, plastic, glass and otherwise.

The last option is one that never would have occurred to me without meeting people from other countries: Fix your devices and send them to a friend in a less privileged community, or donate it to a charity that focuses on bringing technology to new places. It may be a small gesture, but if education is the foundation for the future then there is a compounded benefit to this option. Additionally, you likely already donate old clothes or furniture to thrift stores. Considering how much time you spend on your phone every day, why wouldn’t it occur to you that someone else may find as much enjoyment with it second-hand?

Next time you open that drawer full of Nokia brick phones, use your iPhone X to look up the nearest electronic salvage non-profit and get a sweet tax deduction. You’ll also sleep better at night on your non-biodegradable mattress.