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How Electronics are Recycled

So you’ve just returned from an electronic waste recycling event after unloading your old computers, cell phones and televisions. But what happens next to ensure that these products avoid the landfill?

While some products, such as aluminum cans, do not require sorting or separation, e-waste is not composed of just one material. Electronic devices are constructed with many different materials, so recycling e-waste is a more complex process.

Recycling E-Waste
To understand the e-waste recycling process, it’s important to understand that e-waste recyclers are interested in both saving these devices from landfills as well as getting the most value out of these materials. Electronics such as computers and televisions are made with some valuable metals, including copper and gold, which can be sold and then reused in alternative capacities.

From an environmental standpoint, the fact that these items are reused is far more important than any monetary benefits of recovering these valuable materials. However, e-waste recyclers are also recycling and reusing materials that aren’t nearly as valuable.

In general, as much as 99 percent of all materials from electronics are reused in a different capacity or sold. The vast majority of these materials are used for new electronic items because some of the material, such as the plastic, is already the right grade for electronic devices.

The material from electronics can be used for other products, such as plastic components that are used in the manufacturing of lighters or wood composites.

Putting the Waste in E-Waste
If 99 percent of the material is recycled, that still leaves a small percentage that will end up in the landfill because it has no reuse value. So what materials fall into this category?

One example of this waste is wood paneling, such as on some of the older models of television sets. If you are looking to recycle an item like this, recycling is still a great option, as 1 percent of waste is better than 100 percent. Today, many of the televisions and other electronics in circulation do not have wood paneling on the front. In fact, wood paneling is not even listed on Panasonic’s page on the components of a television.

Hazardous Waste Disposal
The other big issue regarding e-waste recycling is the end result for its hazardous materials, including mercury. While e-waste only accounts for two percent of the U.S.’ garbage in landfills, it accounts for 70 percent of overall toxic garbage.

For e-waste recyclers, removing toxic materials is just as important as removing the most valuable materials, like gold and copper. For example, to remove the lead in computer monitor glass, the glass is placed in a furnace where the lead can be taken out.
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