Episode 3: e-Waste, or, Failure as Success

Episodes / Friday, March 29th, 2019

This week, I talked about e-waste. Check out the episode here:

E-waste, or electronic waste, includes all discarded electric or electronic devices with battery power or circuitry or electric elements. This includes mobile phones, television sets, computers, and printers, but also large appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers.

Why should we care?

E-waste is a big deal environmentally. Globally, 40 million tons of e-waste generated, only 13% of which is recycled. E-waste represents 70% of toxic waste generation. Over 60 chemical elements found in e-waste, including toxic elements such as lead, beryllium, and mercury.

When improperly disposed of, e-waste can end up in landfills and leach into water supply, be incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, or be sent abroad to be managed in countries with lax environmental and human rights regulations. The majority of e-waste is shipped to Africa and Asia to be picked over by informal trash pickers; the 2017 documentary Welcome to Sodom profiles one such landfill site in Ghana.


There are numerous ways to reduce e-waste. We can buy and use fewer electronic devices, repair devices before replacing them, and buy used. We can also buy modular devices, where broken components are more easily replaced, and buy devices that pay fair wages to workers in all stages of production. We can also resell it.

We can recycle e-waste properly, which was my challenge this week. The U.S. EPA has a site listing certified electronics recyclers, which meet environmental and worker safety standards. The EU passed a directive on e-waste in 2002 that required all member states to pass laws to guarantee proper disposal. In 2005, Germany complied by passing the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act [ElektroG], which requires that manufacturers take back electronic devices. Practically speaking, this means municipalities have to offer drop-off points for old electronics that are then fed back to manufacturers. Large retailers of electronic devices also offer free take-backs of old devices when a replacement is purchased.

Fun fact: The EU updated its directive in 2012, and it now includes things like old solar photovoltaic panels.

My challenge

This week, I challenged myself to responsibly dispose of my e-waste, in the form of a bag of old and broken electronics I’ve collected over the past year. But I encountered two unexpected problems: my 8-year-old electric kettle went on the fritz, and my 12-year-old washing machine died.

So my husband went out and bought a new washing machine. Ironically, because the new machine is more energy and water efficient than our existing washing machine, I’ll end up saving electricity and water, leading to a positive climate balance. According to Stiftung Warentest, an old washing machine uses 1-1.5kw of electricity per use; a new one 0.5-0.8kw, so I will save 100kwh in a year of use…all electricity is RE, so not many CO2 emissions. And the old machine will be removed and disposed of properly with no work from me — thanks, EU environmental policy bureaucrats!

What’s giving me hope this week

A poem by Emory Noakes entitled “In which my grandma kicks ass and takes names during the zombie apocalypse.” Thanks, Emory!

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