The Real Cost of Technology and Why You Should Recycle Responsibly

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Before you buy your next electronic gadget, here’s something to think about that goes beyond the features on your wish list or where you’ll find that gadget for the lowest price.

Does the amount you will pay accurately reflect the true cost of that item? If you’re like most people, you’d likely conclude that it does. Here’s why you’d be wrong.


Direct and Indirect Costs

Setting a price for any product can take into consideration two kinds of costs: direct and indirect.

Companies generally use just direct costs for pricing unless the government forces them to factor in indirect costs. Direct costs of a product are more obvious—materials, labour, rent, packaging, transportation and marketing. Indirect costs, however, are much less apparent.

In the case of electronics, indirect costs include damage to the environment when items are thrown away rather than recycled.

Even when electronics are recycled, the indirect costs to the environment will depend on how ethical the recycling process is.

Since it is estimated that only 20 per cent of electronics is being recycled, the indirect costs are much higher than necessary.

The costs of unethical electronics recycling include:

  • the negative health effects for people who process toxic chemicals without proper protection
  • the costs of the violence associated with conflict resources
  • the costs of extracting new metals rather than regenerating metals through recycling
  • fewer jobs compared to those created with ethical recycling



Toxic Third World Landfills

It’s no secret that developed countries ship much of their e-waste to developing countries for processing.

This is called the global waste trade. While China recently closed its doors to this practice, there are plenty of countries still accepting e-waste.

They tend to be located in western Africa and Asia.

Unfortunately, in the countries that process e-waste, laws governing environmental safety and human health and safety are minimal to non-existent.

Toxic materials such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, chromium and other components of electronics contaminate both the environment and harm the workers processing them.

By recycling old electronics locally and responsibly, we make sure that toxic waste is not contributing to environmental or health problems elsewhere in the world.



Violence Associated With Conflict Resources

Conflict resources are natural resources extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting.

The four most commonly mined conflict minerals are cassiterite, wolframite, coltan and gold ore.

Other conflict minerals include cobalt and tungsten.

These conflict minerals are mined in the eastern Congo in Africa and are essential for the manufacture of electronic items such as cell phones and laptops.

Proceeds from the sale of these minerals are used to fund conflicts throughout the region. Responsible recycling would reduce dependence on mined conflict minerals.



Recovering Valuable Resources vs. Mining New Metals

It is estimated that 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated globally in 2016.

The amount of valuable raw materials contained in that total, including metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium, would be worth an estimated US$64.6 billion if recovered through recycling.

Recovering valuable resources is a major benefit of recycling electronics versus mining new resources.

Rüdiger Kühr of United Nations University (UNU) says that, to mine one gram of gold, companies need to move a ton of ore.

But the same amount of gold can be found in 41 mobile phones in a process that is called urban mining.



Creating Jobs Through Ethical Recycling

One of the most visible benefits of recycling e-waste properly is the creation of jobs.

Jobs are created in several areas: through collecting, processing and preparing e-waste; through creating new electronics from reused and recycled parts; and through reselling and reusing older electronics parts.

One study found that for every job that exists in recycling collection, eight jobs are created through manufacturing recovered material into new products.

It should now be obvious that the price of an electronic product does not accurately reflect its true cost when we consider the damage that can be inflicted on the planet if that product is not responsibly recycled.

Given that each of us has full control over whether we do or do not responsibly recycle our electronics, the correct path is clear.

Find an ethical e-waste recycler with multiple certifications and a good reputation for follow-through that properly manages the process from start to finish. Your conscience and the planet will thank you!

  • Luke Rooks

    Luke is a passionate environmental advocate based in upstate New York. When he's not sharing tips on sustainability and wellness, you can find him hiking with his dog, Max.

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