Ever wonder what becomes of some of our personal items after they've outlived their usefulness and are ready to discard? Things like cellphones, laptops or that old CD you used to listen to on repeat back in high school? Though once out of sight, typically out of mind, these items (or at least the components of these items) do go on to do other things. That is if you put in the extra effort to recycle them.
Not everything that's recyclable can go into the single-stream bins. We cobbled together a handful of these special cases — from motor oil to digital pregnancy tests — to explore their afterlives.
Computers, Smartphones, Televisions
These are some of the classic items we often think of when we think of electronics waste. They are processed somewhat similarly though special precautions need to be made for hazardous materials. For example batteries need to be removed from cellphones and older, cathode-ray tube television sets require special handling due to their lead content.
After e-waste items are collected, they are typically sorted by type and checked for resale value, says Tim Dewey-Mattia, who serves as a board member for the Northern California Recycling Association. The device will be broken down to its core components before it is shredded. Plastic parts are flaked, cleaned and melted into pellets which can be used to make various plastic items from picnic tables to traffic cones — or other new electronic devices.
The metal undergoes a smelting process that uses high temperatures and special equipment to extract out precious metals such as gold, silver or copper.
Fun fact: In recycling circles, televisions, radios and computers (along with a few other household items) are known as “brown goods” because the term harkens back to the days when televisions and radios were housed in wood or fake wood cabinetry.
It's harder to find recyclers that will accept these items because there isn't a good market for them, says Dewey-Mattia. “Our recycling systems, with all of the machines and human sorters, are really set up to capture the most commonly generated materials,” he says. “They are really just low-grade pieces of plastic that you can’t recycle curbside.”
You can ship your old CD or DVD collections off for recycling into new plastic, but because the processing costs more than the value of the material you will likely have to pay a fee. If the discs are in good condition and still in their original boxes you might be better off donating them to your local thrift shop.
If not, the internet offers plenty of ideas for an exciting CD/DVD afterlife from coasters to mosaics.
Used motor oil can build up a slew of impurities such as dirt, metal scrapings, water and other chemicals but it never technically goes bad. In the recycling process, these impurities are removed and a variety of oil products, fuel and even anti-freeze can be made from the original oil. Recycling motor oil comes with ample environmental benefits and has shown to work just as well, if not better than, virgin oil.
Digital Pregnancy Tests
The lure of getting a definitive “pregnant” or “not pregnant” on a screen may be enticing but it comes with an environmental cost. These tests house a tiny computer inside them to interpret the results and despite their one-use status are considered electronic waste.
Dewey-Mattia says he doesn't think any ick factor from the presence of human pee would deter collectors but recommends rinsing them off first.
Popular digital test company Clear blue instructs the user to remove the battery first by inserting a coin into the slot at the end and twisting the test open. The battery should be recycled separately from the rest of the test “according to the appropriate recycling scheme for electrical equipment.”
Many batteries aren't even dead before they're recycled says Daniel Lin, an associate professor of operations management at the University of San Diego School of Business. Lin studies environmentally and socially responsible operations and recently co-authored a paper titled “Choice of Electronic Waste Recycling Standard Under Recovery Channel Competition.”
“A lot of batteries are not really used,” Lin said. “The device is old, it's broken, but the battery is still good.”
Lin highlighted the work of the company BigBattery, Inc. which is salvaging working batteries from otherwise dead electronics.
When recycled, the batteries are disassembled and precious metals and conflict minerals are extracted. Lithium batteries — which are gaining in popularity today — can be recycled into something called “black mass.” This powder is made up of various metals including lithium, cobalt and nickel and can be used to make new batteries.
Landfill vs. Recycling Center
When it comes to electronics, recycling is always a better option than dropping items in a landfill where toxic chemicals can leach out and into the water supply, but it comes with its own drawbacks too.
“At a high level, I do believe there are environmental drawbacks and a premium to properly recycle,” says Evelyn O'Donnell, founder of the Silicon Valley-based recycling company Green Mouse IT Management Services. “Transporting electronic wastes requires the use of gasoline for vehicles to pick up and subsequently send downstream for further recycling (and) some electronic wastes are sent by truck from state to state for processing,” she says.
In addition, the process of smelting can release toxic fumes in the air but precious metal extraction performed overseas can be even worse, says Lin.
“When e-waste is shipped overseas, (the items are) likely being processed in a more primitive way such as open burning,” says Lin. “Toxic material is likely to be dumped directly to rivers (and) people handle toxic e-waste with little or no protection.” These practices are largely what has motivated China and other Asian countries to ban the importation of foreign waste, he added.
“Given some of these health and environmental problems, consumers should first think about if refurbishing is an option,” says Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor of practice at Ohio University. “If not, make sure to check that the recycler you are sending your materials to is reputable and employs good practices, as not all e-waste recyclers are created equal.”
Lin suggests you do this by asking if they send their e-waste to a certified recycling facility.
On the bright side, Lin adds, as we rely more and more on streaming services, our dependence on things like DVD players and mp3 players are dwindling and resulting in less of those types of bulky e-waste items.