We might as well designate January “obsolete devices month.”
As technology advances, the lifespan of electronic devices becomes shorter because consumers want the latest products. And the volume of retired devices spikes in January after so many people get new tablets, TVs or phones for Christmas.
Surplus Exchange in Kansas City, which accepts and refurbishes discarded devices, or e-waste, sees a 46 percent spike in January over the average month.
“We’ve seen quite a few people with their massive TV tubes the last couple of days,” executive director Bob Akers said last week. “People get the new stuff and they’re not sure what to do with the old stuff.”
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The number of electronic devices being recycled is growing but is still only a fraction of what is being retired. Some just gather dust in a closet or basement, but many end up in landfills, where their toxins may pollute the environment.
Meanwhile, demand for new devices is insatiable. The electronics industry projects its revenues will rise 3 percent this year to more than $223 billion.
“Our forecast underscores that consumers’ love affair with technology shows no signs of slowing anytime soon,” Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said last week in announcing the projection. “In the blink of an eye, consumer demand has taken off for emerging categories … that were too small to track just three years ago.”
Those emerging categories, including “wearables” such as smart watches and Fitbits, drones and 4K Ultra High Definition video, were on display at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, at which an estimated 20,000 products made their debuts among 3,600 exhibitors and before 160,000 attendees.
The Consumer Electronics Association expects shipment of 4K UHD displays — high-def TV is now making way for ultra-high-def — to reach 4 million in 2015, a 208 percent increase.
Well-established categories of devices also continue to grow. The number of smartphones shipped in the U.S. grew 40 percent from 2012, to 152 million in 2014. They are expected to top 169 million this year — more than one for every other person in the country.
Desktop and laptop computer sales actually declined in 2013, but tablet sales are expected to top 80 million this year, a 3 percent increase.
The Environmental Protection Agency says e-waste is the fastest growing segment of the world’s trash problem. From 2000 to 2012, the total amount of e-waste grew from 1.9 million tons to 3.42 million tons.
It is estimated that homes in the Kansas City area produce in excess of 5,000 tons of e-waste a year.
The percentage nationwide of e-waste, by weight, getting recycled has roughly tripled from 10 percent in 2000, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. But that still means more than two-thirds of it is not being recycled.
Monitors with cathode ray tubes (CRTs) contain lead, chromium, nickel, zinc, mercury and other heavy metals that can be toxic if they leach into ground water. Dosomething.org estimates e-waste amounts to 70 percent of the toxic waste in landfills.
Aside from being dangerous, it’s just wasteful. According to the EPA, harvesting 1 million cellphones could yield 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and 20,000 pounds of copper.
E-waste includes more than computers and phones. The definition covers just about anything with a plug, including discarded DVD players, answering machines, gaming consoles, printers and digital cameras.
At least 23 states have passed some form of mandate for recycling electronics. Some, including Missouri, require manufacturers to arrange to take back your old computer for recycling at no cost. Neither Kansas nor Missouri bans dumping electronic devices in landfills.
A better idea is to refurbish old devices for further use.
There are a handful of for-profit operations in the Kansas City area that buy used computers and other devices, mainly from businesses and institutions. There also are nonprofit organizations that will take and recycle them.
Goodwill has a partnership with Dell to refurbish and recycle any brand of computer. Dell says it has kept 374 million pounds of e-waste out of landfills since 2004.
Nonprofit Connecting for Good in Kansas City accepts discarded computers and other devices, wipes them clean of personal data, refurbishes them and makes them available to primarily low-income people on the other side of the “digital divide.”
The group, which has locations in Kansas City, Kan., and on Troost Avenue, had already received about a dozen donated computers in just two days after the holidays.
“We’ve been putting out notices on social media, Facebook and Twitter, telling people if you’ve gotten a new computer, we have a home for your old one,” said co-founder Michael Liimatta. “This is the first year we’ve made a big deal out of it.”
Connecting for Good, only a couple of years old, has put about 1,000 computers back into the community. It charges customers $75 for a desktop machine that has been wiped clean of data and set up with Windows 7, a Web browser, Adobe Acrobat and an anti-virus software.
Customers also receive a three-hour “digital life skills” course so they will know how to use the computers to better their lives. Last year, about 2,000 people took the course. Connecting for Good has added staff and hopes to reach 3,000 more this year, Liimatta said.
Surplus Exchange, another nonprofit, charges a fee for dropping off CRTs to cover the cost of dealing with them. Other devices it accepts for free. Donors may be eligible for a tax deduction.
Everything that comes in is tested for its potential reuse, and if it can be refurbished it is made fully functional. Surplus Exchange also will remove personal data from computers. If it cannot be reused it is disassembled to salvage its components and to recover the hazardous and precious metals.
People can drop things off at Surplus Exchange’s headquarters in the West Bottoms. The organization also has a receptacle at the Overland Park Recycling Center at 119th and Hardy streets that takes in about 3,000 pounds of non-CRT electronics a week. A single collection event last spring yielded 105,000 pounds in one day.
Surplus Exchange sells refurbished devices to finance its operation. It also has donated equipment for institutions and programs, including Swope Ridge Geriatric Center; a senior center in Sedalia; the Urban Ranger Corps; YouthBuild and the MindStream Academy.
“To me,” Akers said, “the environmental issue and social justice go hand in hand.”