Electronics recycling can have tremendous benefits for businesses and the environment by recycling old materials, converting them into new and usable raw materials, thus decreasing the need for mining for rare earth metals in new land.
But, these benefits would not provide a 'net positive' if electronics recycling is not done right. In some cases, it even makes things worse for both nature and the business, despite the good intention to recycle e-waste.
This is the unfortunate scenario caused by poor recycling practices common among recyclers in developing and developed countries alike. Furthermore, nothing is stopping recyclers from their inadequate practices due to the profits for selling rare metals acquired from old electronics.
1. Degradation of the environment
Electronics contain barium, cadmium, lead, lithium, mercury, and polybrominated flame-retardants. Without proper disposal, these can contaminate the surrounding environment.
Such materials are among the most harmful to the environment due to their nature as persistent bio-accumulative toxins. These materials end up in the soil and in turn, get absorbed by plants which pass them on to the animals. Animals can also absorb them by contact through air, soil, and water.
Exposure to these chemicals causes both flora and fauna to decrease in number. Some have even disappeared completely due to poisoning from the toxins, or to the disruption of the food chain in their habitat.
2. Human exposure to toxic materials
Humans are likewise at risk from exposure to the persistent bio-accumulative toxins found in electronics. When humans eat animals contaminated by these toxic chemicals, they are absorbing the accumulated toxins stored in the fat tissues.
These toxins increase the risk for disease due to the damage experienced by the body, specifically in the brain, heart, lungs, digestive system, kidneys, nervous system, and skeletal system. Babies exposed to these chemicals during pregnancy have increased risk for having birth defects.
3. Increased risk for data breach
If a recycler does not follow strict standards in their processes, you cannot expect them to have proper secured e-recycling measures in place. And, since electronic devices will retain data in some way, business secrets can be exposed if someone with the proper skill and motivation to access it stumbles upon your business' storage hardware in a trash pile.
4. Loss of Valuable Materials
Good e-recycling practices involve the use of the right equipment to maximize the extracted materials from e-waste. Without these technologies, valuable materials are inevitably thrown away even after passing through the (inadequate) recycling process. This is the case when a recycling service only uses manual labor and does not have the necessary equipment and processes for sorting and extraction.
These negative effects are most prevalent in countries and businesses with informal recycling practices. This is the reality due to less developed countries and low capital recyclers not having the means to construct and operate the necessary facilities. It is for this reason that due diligence should be done to ensure that you are dealing with recyclers with the capability to properly and responsibly process or dispose your business' end-of-life electronics.