Stories: Recycling Electronics
The average American household has 24 gadgets plugged in- from game consoles to computers to multiple TVs to tablets to mobile phones. In the U.S., consumers purchase over 34 million new TVs every year, 17 million new computer monitors and 43 million new laptops. What happens when we are finished using them? Many U.S. communities have designated electronics recycling takeback days, but for many people, where used electronics end up continues to remains a mystery, despite many years of stakeholder efforts to design the most cost effective way to collect, repurpose and safely recycle these products.
Refurbishing and recycling used electronics significantly decreases their environmental toll by extending the life of the product or its components, thereby diluting the upstream manufacturing impacts and preserving natural resources that might not otherwise need to be extracted.
Within the last decade, cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs have became obsolete, replaced by razor thin LCD screens. Motherboards became lighter, thinner, smaller, and integrated circuits became almost microscopic. At the same time, the narrative of how different countries, especially non-industrialized ones, manage used electronics, hasn’t changed significantly. Concern over exporting products into countries that don’t have the infrastructure to safely dismantle and recycle electronics remains paramount. Many domestic collection programs pledge not to export used products overseas. In parallel, policy makers and organizations around the world are working to build capacity in non-industrialized countries to repurpose and recycle electronics safely, recognizing that demand for scrap is high in countries with less advanced waste management and recycling infrastructure.
I wanted to see for myself what electronics reuse and recycling looks like on the ground today. I chose to visit Peru as a first stop because much attention on the flows of electronic scrap focuses on Africa and Asia, not Latin America. I chose to visit a country where both the informal and formal sectors are involved in collecting and processing electronic scrap, one that also faces challenges in managing its solid waste, and one with a robust population and healthy consumer market where different income levels all typically have access to electronics devices. I sought to understand if lessons from Lima could help inform how countries with similar demographics can manage their used electronics and flows of e-scrap in an environmentally safe manner.