Hate to add to your worries, but our relentless quest to update our smartphones and hi-def televisions might have an expiration date. The working components of those consumer electronics items—alongside others including computer monitors and rechargeable batteries, and lots of important nonconsumer items like lasers and wind turbines—require rare-earth elements, an assortment of metals that, while not exactly uncommon, seldom appear in large concentrations. And like everything we dig from the ground, they are finite.
Now, hold that thought for a moment, because there’s more great news: Consumers simply throw away millions of cellphones and electronic devices yearly—approximately 40 million tons’ worth, according to environmental awareness site TheWorldCounts.com. (That’s equivalent to tossing out “800 laptops every second.”) These electronics end up in landfills, where their precious metals are rendered useless … and their more common elements, such as cadmium, lead and mercury, seep into the ground or are disbursed into the air by fire, and become toxic.
Luckily, consumer recycling of electronic devices exists, though you’d barely know it: Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that only 12.5% of electronic waste (or e-waste) is recycled yearly. Let’s talk about how we get those numbers up.
Where to dispose of e-waste?
It’s a hard habit to get into—and in some cases, it can actually cost you money—but the long-term good of recycling e-waste far outweighs the drawbacks. You can begin by turning in your old cellphone when planned obsolescence forces you get a new one; many cellular retails offer buyback programs, and a dead phone in a drawer does you no good at all. For disposal of other e-waste, consider one of these options.
Best Buy The big-box retailer will recycle up to three items per household per day: TVs, computers, phones, even ink and toner cartridges. Some items might incur a fee. bit.ly/3hNCyUh
Call2Recycle This site locates free e-waste drop-off centers in your neighborhood (odds are good it’ll be a Lowe’s or Home Depot). Note that many of them don’t take single-use batteries. call2recycle.org
Republic Services Don’t want to leave the house? This waste and recycling firm takes dead electronics in bulk through a postage-paid, box mail-in program. Rates begin with a six-pound box for $89. republicservices.com
Sustain Vegas This local firm takes your “unwanted, unused, broken or legacy computers and electronics” free of charge, and even wipes the data from them. (You should always wipe your own data before disposing of electronics, just to be sure; there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to do that.) Note that Sustain is unable to take old-school cathode ray tube TVs and monitors, and also batteries. sustainvegas.com
For the most part, it’s a bad idea to throw batteries in the trash. Though most single use consumer batteries—AA, AAA, D, 9-volts and so on—are relatively landfill-safe nowadays (that wasn’t the case pre-1996, after which Congress forbade battery manufacturers to use mercury), it’s still a good idea to take them to a recycling center; their metal casings can be reused, and their minerals safely disposed or reused. And rechargeable and button cell (watch) batteries must be recycled, full stop. Some nasty stuff in there.
Consumer Reports recommends that you save expired batteries in their original packages; mark them with a Sharpie so you’ll know at a glance if they’re bad. Simply tossing loose batteries into a plastic bag or plastic or metal container could prove dangerous; even spent batteries could catch fire if their contact points touch. And on that note, if you must throw batteries away, put tape over their contact points to minimize fire risk.
What are rare-earth elements
The rare-earth elements (REE) are 17 metallic elements, mostly lanthanides—cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, terbium, thulium and ytterbium—plus scandium and yttrium. They’re kind of a big deal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey: “Although the amount of REE used in a product may not be a significant part of that product by weight, value, or volume, the REE can be necessary for the device to function. For example, magnets made of REE often represent only a small fraction of the total weight, but without them, the spindle motors and voice coils of desktops and laptops would not be possible.”
There are two big problems with rare-earth elements that we can’t get around. One is that they’re mostly found in China, which makes them valuable bargaining chips in trade wars. The other is that, eventually, we will have mined all the large deposits of which we’re aware; some experts say we might get there in less than 100 years. At that point, the small and scattered amounts of rare earths in the ground might prove too expensive to mine, which means an end to rechargeable batteries and our dream of sustainable energy. It’s probably not a great idea to throw these things away, but we’re doing it.