The U.S. Has a Huge E-Waste Problem. But There Is Money To Make in Its Disposal.

As a mountain of dangerous devices and appliances pollutes our world, some entrepreneurs see gold in another person's trash—literally.

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By John Boitnott

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Running any business today involves using at least one electronic device. Some of these plastics, papers, and metals can get recycled forever (called "circularity" in sustainability circles), but options for recycling electronic waste, or e-waste, have not progressed as rapidly.

In 2021, the world produced enough e-waste to outweigh the Great Wall of China, but only 17 percent of that waste was recycled properly worldwide, and only 15 percent was recycled in the U.S. While a lot of this waste comes from individuals, businesses have a major role to play in recycling and reusing electronics, especially those looking to invest in sustainability.

Related: What You Can Do Now to Help Fight the Global E-Waste Crisis

The dangers of e-waste

So, what is e-waste, and how do we do a better job recycling it?

Broadly, e-waste is any electronic product or appliance that has outlived its usefulness. Batteries, computers, cell phones, headphones, remote controls, and televisions all fall under the category of e-waste.

E-waste differs from other types of waste in two key ways: First, e-waste contains hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Improper disposal methods, such as open-air burning to recover valuable material or leaving the e-waste in a landfill, can expose workers and communities to these hazardous chemicals. They can cause cancer, miscarriages, neurological damage, and even diminished I.Q.

If those consequences were not frightening enough, improper battery disposal could cause fires in landfills. Between 2013 and 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spotted 245 battery-related fires. Needless to say, this should inspire you to keep your e-waste out of landfills altogether.

Related: The Electronic Menace: Why E-waste is a Major Concern Today

The potential of e-waste

The second way e-waste differs from regular waste is that it provides incentives to reuse or recycle. E-waste, particularly batteries and electronics, contains valuable minerals needed to build a more sustainable economy.

Gold recovered from electronics is projected to be as valuable as newly mined gold in the U.S. This means recycling e-waste that contains gold can be particularly lucrative, as there is 100 times more gold in a ton of e-waste than in a ton of gold ore.

And gold isn't the only valuable mineral hiding in e-waste. Batteries contain critical minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Cobalt and nickel are necessary for large-scale energy storage and electric vehicles. However, all three are in short supply in the U.S.

Most lithium is mined in Argentina and Chile, most cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most nickel is mined in Indonesia and the Philippines. China dominates the processing of all of these minerals. But the U.S. is catching up. The federal government recently doubled down on efforts to boost domestic manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and grids

Related: These #4 Startups are Giving New Life to E-waste

Options for recycling e-waste

While several states have e-waste recycling mandates, the U.S. currently has yet to have any national laws around e-waste recycling. This lack of national policy has held the industry back and made it difficult for consumers and businesses to recycle, even if they want to.

When it comes to battery recycling, China outpaces every country and recycles 188,000 tons per year compared to just 51,000 tons recycled in the U.S. As for other e-waste, China also dominates, handling approximately 70 percent of the world's e-waste.

Despite these barriers, there are still plenty of options for recycling your e-waste in the U.S., including two different lists of certified recyclers for businesses in the U.S., e-Stewards and R2. Both programs ensure best management practices, such as worker health and safety, data security, and asset management.

If you're working with smaller purchases, GreenerGadgers helps you find locations to recycle any electronic that no longer works. If none of these groups have accessible areas for your business, you can contact the original manufacturers and see if they have a recycling program.

If all else fails, you can take matters into your own hands and learn how to extract gold from your old electronics.

Related: Here's How Much Not Recycling Your Old Laptop Is Costing You

Options for reusing e-waste

Before recycling electronics, consider whether or not you can reuse them. In addition to the recycling businesses, some startups are doing good work reusing old electronics. One such business, Tech Lit Africa, takes older computer models in the U.S. and uses them to teach computer classes in rural Africa.

You can focus on simpler solutions on a smaller scale, like repairing your phone to extend use. If everyone extended their phone use by just one year, we could reduce overall phone waste by 25 percent.

How to avoid contributing to the e-waste problem

While the U.S. may not be set up to help you recycle your electronic waste, recycling and reusing electronics not only protects the environment and improves health outcomes, but it also provides opportunities to increase the supply of critical minerals for clean energy transition. Moreover, your customers and investors will value your attention to your environmental impact.

Whether you're looking to repair your electronics, extend their life, or recycle them and recover critical minerals, there are plenty of platforms designed to connect you with certified organizations. Check out a program's credentials before you recycle your electronic goods to avoid contributing to the growing e-waste problem.

Related: The Significance of E-Waste Management In the backdrop of Current IT Boom

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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