When the first Earth Day was organized in 1970, dedicated environmentalists hoped to shine a spotlight on ways to protect the Earth through smart environmental reforms. That included promoting emerging technologies that would reduce the nation’s reliance on pollutants like insecticides, oil, and coal.
What they didn’t realize back then were the problems that advanced technology would eventually create.
In 1970, there were no smartphones, laptops, tablets or DVD players. Today, they not only exist, but help feed an insatiable appetite among consumers for these devices — across the globe.
Not surprisingly, the manufacturers of electronics have responded by repeatedly reintroducing a new, more technologically savvy version designed to make the older model seem obsolete. Consumers have taken the bait, in large numbers, and are replacing their electronics at record speed.
But what happens to all those used electronics that people are discarding? Far too many end up in community landfills, a trend that has alarmed environmentalists. That’s because the metals within electronics contain toxins like mercury and lead which pose serious environmental risks to the soil, water, and wildlife near the landfills, as well as to human health.
And when Earth Day arrives on April 22, a new spotlight should be shined on the issue of e-waste. When it comes to combating pollutants, the issue of e-waste is as relevant today as insecticides were in 1970.
What’s Changed Since the First Earth Day?
Earth Day was founded by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin as an environmental teach-in on April 22, 1970. That event was held on several thousand colleges and universities and in hundreds of communities across the country. The event was a huge success, one that brought together 20 million Americans committed to working for stronger environmental protections. And fortunately for all of us, it wasn’t a one-time event.
Today, the nonprofit Earth Day Network coordinates this April 22 event with celebrations, activities and observations in 192 countries. Estimates are that it is celebrated by more than a billion people each year.
In that first year, environmentalists hoped to inspire people to get involved, to develop a passion for their environment, and to work toward significant policy changes.
That same sentiment holds true 48 years later. The only difference is the issues that environmental activists are working to alter.
No one in 1970 anticipated a time when thousands of cell phones, laptops, computers, monitors, DVD players, flat screen TVs and other electronics would create serious environmental problems, even as the technology behind them has provided users with tools that would have seemed unthinkable in the late 1960s.
Unwanted electronics, or e-waste, contain hazardous chemicals that pose no risk to consumers while they’re using them on a daily basis. It’s only when these devices stockpile in landfills that the environmental risks emerge. Those toxins can definitely poison people and the groundwater.
And considering that environmentalists in 1970 often focused on large industrial plants and the potential pollutants coming out of them, it’s no small irony that today, environmental activists say the nation’s biggest environmental problem may be these very tiny cell phone devices.
Fortunately, environmentalists also say there’s a clear and workable solution, and that’s recycling e-waste. And on April 22, many of the participants of the Earth Day celebrations held around the world will be emphasizing the need to increase awareness about recycling cell phones and other electronics.
Why is E-Waste an Environmental Issue?
Because of the Earth Day events, April is often a very busy month for community recycling events, many of them connected to Earth Day activities that inspire people to go green.
In past decades, Earth Day organizers have sponsored programs to encourage people to clean up our air and water, environmental fairs, and tree-planting ceremonies. In the past decade, cities around the country went in a new direction and sponsored battery-recycling programs that included equipping businesses and individuals with everything they need to start recycling.
Recycling electronics has been a focus of community events on Earth Day as well.
The problem that environmentalists are focused on is the fact that electronic waste is increasing at an exponential rate. Manufacturers are shipping millions of these products across the globe, with consumer demand particularly high in developing nations. The term e-waste covers a wide swath of products, including washing machines, refrigerators, toys, digital cameras, stereo systems, and home entertainment systems — virtually any business or household item with electrical or circuitry components with power or battery supply.
Since many of these products are being mass produced, the amount of discarded e-waste gets larger each year. But only a relatively modest percentage of those devices are being recycled. Hence, the push for an increased awareness of the conservation and environmental advantages of recycling e-waste.
Today, hardly anyone questions that e-waste is a global environmental and health issue. Different nations have responded in unique ways. In the European Union, manufacturers are required to eliminate dangerous toxins from their production process.
But other nations are only in the infant stages of finding a way to deal with e-waste.
It’s known that more than 40 million metric tons of e-waste get produced globally each year, but only about 13 percent of that gets recycled.
The rest end up in landfills where they may leak lead and other heavy metals that can pollute nearby soil and groundwater. And with Americans now in possession of more than 500 million obsolete, broken or unused cell phones, that’s the equivalent of 65,000 tons of waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Can Earth Day Make a Difference?
One event each year won’t make a difference, but if everyone plays their parts and pledges to recycle their used electronics, that definitely will make a difference.
What’s great about recycling electronics is that the parts containing e-waste can be removed and used to make new products. That helps hold down the cost of manufacturing new products, and the recycling industry is growing quickly and creating jobs around the country.
April 22 truly is a special day for anyone committed to a green future. It’s a day to take steps, large or small, that allow us to work toward the goal of creating a better environment for everyone, to reduce pollution, to plant trees – and to recycle devices that might otherwise end up in landfills.
A great first start would be to bring those devices to Great Lakes Electronics Corporation, which has years of experience performing environmentally friendly recycling of electronic products.
The experienced team at Great Lakes will disassemble these items into component parts, and the ones that still have value can be sold for reuse. Other parts are used for metals recovery, and everything is recycled.
The team at Great Lakes Electronics also cares about the environment and strives to be the best in our industry.