Where do phones go when they die?

By Jula Tully

Electronics like cellphones, laptops, and chargers are an essential part of our daily lives, but they are also creating a lot of waste, also known as e-waste.

“I’ve had five new iPhones since my first one,” says Grace Bruther ‘23, a student at Muhlenberg College. “All the iPhones I’ve bought were needed because every one was broken before I bought a new one,” she says. Bruther’s family, like a lot of other Apple customers, disposes of their old/broken products by shipping them to a local Apple facility.

Apple’s policy of ‘trading-in’ consumer electronics allows customers to ship old/broken products to their local Apple facility. The policy works to transfer money to the customer’s account which is credited towards their next purchase. According to Apple, the old/broken product is either wiped of current data and re-sold to the next customer, taken apart and scavenged for electronic fragments, or recycled if the product is completely broken.  The corporation commits to “sending zero waste to landfills,” by either extracting “different components [of the product that can] be re-used or recycled” or re-selling the used product to a new customer. According to Apple’s environmental progress reports, this policy has allowed the corporation to “recycle or remarket more than 10 million devices” within the last year.

However, e-waste is not just an Apple issue. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. alone creates an estimated 2.37 million tons of e-waste each year, with about 25% ending up in landfills. When e-waste is incinerated it produces toxic substances and chemicals that heavily pollute both the environment and atmosphere. This pollution is caused by the incineration of a range of dangerous substances, the most common including beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead,  that can cause serious “harm to human health and the environment.” When e-waste is burned, the release of open-air toxins and chemicals “can lead to irreversible health effects [in environmental workers], including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished IQs.”

 Electronic waste is a big environmental issue in places like universities and colleges that utilize a lot of technology. “Our community usually collects around 10,000 lbs of electronic waste each year,” says Jeffrey Yorgey, a media technician with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at Muhlenberg College. “This can include batteries, small electronics, servers, computers, projectors, classroom equipment, cameras, and old media.”

“Most of our e-waste comes directly from decommissioned OIT equipment, among other departments like campus safety and athletics,” he says. While the Muhlenberg community may produce an estimated 10,000 lbs of electronic waste per year, Yorgey explains that the college contributes hopeful efforts towards reducing its carbon footprint by refusing to directly send any e-waste to local landfills or other nonrecyclable waste facilities.

“Muhlenberg also does a good job of reusing and donating technology that still functions.” Yorgey says. “The OIT at Muhlenberg donates operational items to local schools and other non-profit organizations. I know in the past we’ve donated piles of working desktop computers, monitors, and laptops to the Allentown School District and other organizations.” This is hopeful news for students, alumni, and other members of the Muhlenberg community who hope to see efforts in reducing the college’s carbon footprint when it comes to e-waste.

The EPA’s International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN) guides government authorities and world leaders across the globe towards collectively working together in learning “how to improve the management of used electronics in their countries.”

According to the IEMN, “in 2016, only about 20 percent of all e-waste globally was recycled,” yet they are currently working towards increasing this percentage in the coming years by expanding environmental recycling services to more countries. The IEMN focuses on the ability to “reuse and recycle e-waste and increasing the implementation of environmentally sound management of e-waste.” Through this, national environmental protection organizations and governmental officials within many countries, including Colombia, Vietnam, Argentina, the Philippines, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, etc., have strategized how e-waste “products can be reused, refurbished, or recycled in an environmentally sound manner so that they are less harmful to the ecosystem and reduce the need to extract virgin materials to fabricate new products.”

Similarly to the way the IEMN works internationally to improve the global recycling of e-waste, the Muhlenberg community works locally with a chain recycling company, Clean Earth, in Lehigh Valley in hopes of reducing their environmental impacts on a more community-based level.

According to Yorgey, the Muhlenberg community works with Clean Earth which helps in slightly reducing the college’s carbon footprint when it comes to the recycling and disposing of e-waste products. “Recently, Clean Earth acquired a local recycling center [in Allentown] that was previously working with AERC Recycling Solutions. They come to campus and collect everything for us.” Yorgey says.

The company recycles as many products and fragments of e-waste as possible in hopes of producing a safer, cleaner environment. According to Clean Earth, the company works with a number of “businesses and organizations across the country who have committed to reducing waste and making recycling a priority.” Businesses, organizations, and households transport e-waste to one of their local facilities, where Clean Earth’s recycling process begins. According to Clean Earth, “their recycling capabilities allows their customers to collectively recycle millions of tons of material each year that would otherwise go into landfills.”

From everyday household appliances like refrigerators and microwaves to more mainstream products like cellphone and computers, Muhlenberg College works well with Clean Earth to provide e-waste recycling solutions that help in keeping the local Allentown environment both safe and clean.