In 2007, Apple unveiled an innovative product that would effectively change the world: The iPhone, now on its 19th iteration. While iPhone sales had a relatively slow start, in the smartphone world, the devices have become synonymous with prestige and convenience. Upwards of 100 million Americans own and use an iPhone, and more than 1.5 billion of the ubiquitous devices have been sold in the past decade.

There are dark implications behind those impressive numbers, however. Outdated iPhone models are often swapped out for newer versions, even if the older devices are still functional. Other iPhone users wait until their phones break beyond repair to upgrade. Yet no matter the circumstances behind your iPhone trade-up, a massive amount of waste is left behind, including materials such as precious metals that are recyclable.

Recycling Electronics
Americans produce 9.4 million tons of e-waste every year, only 12.5% of which is recycled.

For instance, iPhones contain 0.34 grams of silver, 0.034 grams of gold, and a number of other metals. Those materials could theoretically be repurposed, yet a significant amount of electronic waste ends up in landfills around the world. Every German citizen produces about 44 pounds of electronic waste annually, less than half of which is recycled.

But Germany’s numbers pale in comparison to the e-waste produced in the United States. Vying for the top global spot in e-waste production (the U.S. is neck-and-neck with China in this regard), Americans produce 9.4 million tons of e-waste every year, only 12.5% of which is recycled.

If our staggering waste production is any indication, sustainably responsible methods of electronic waste disposal must be prioritized within every nation. Further, an increasingly remote global workforce means that data security comes into play within e-waste discussions. So how can we reduce the environmental impact of e-waste? Can we safely dispose of electronics without worrying about cybersecurity or privacy breach issues?

Disposing of E-Waste Whatever Your Location

Make no mistake: iPhones and other smartphone models are far from the only culprit in the realm of electronic waste. Every electronic device in your home, vehicle, and office will become e-waste when discarded, from small appliances such as microwaves and toasters to flat-screen televisions, laptops, and even vape pens and e-cigarette devices.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you consider donating unwanted electronic items rather than discarding them. In fact, according to the EPA, donating or recycling electronic devices “conserves our natural resources and avoids air and water pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.”

Of course, there comes a point when your electronic devices and appliances are no longer functional, at which point disposal may seem to be the only viable option. Electronic disposal can be done in a sustainable manner, however. And it’s the duty of every global citizen to reduce our environmental impact and carbon footprint whenever possible. Thus, when it’s time to say goodbye to your electronic devices, research the disposal options in your area. Simply throwing them in the trash is not an option – it’s illegal.

Depending on where you live, your local disposal company may participate in the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program, specially designed to help combat the potentially hazardous waste stemming from large appliance disposal. When recycling smaller items such as cell phones, you may be able to drop them off at stores offering corporate electronic recycling programs, including Apple, Sony, and Best Buy.

Ensuring Information Security When Recycling Electronics

No matter if you’re recycling, donating, or completely disposing of an electronic device that contains personal data, you should make a conscious effort to protect your privacy. Completely remove all of your personal data and media, such as photos, music, and documents. Don’t forget to completely delete your browsing history as well, from every installed browser. For added protection, it may be prudent to completely re-install a new, updated operating system on your device to ensure that it’s fully scrubbed of personal information.

Similar precautions are also needed at the corporate level, especially considering that commercial buildings produce a significant output of carbon emissions. If it’s time for your office to upgrade computer systems, make sure to hand your older units over to your IT department prior to disposal. IT professionals can help ensure that the security of both your company and its network remains intact by properly scrubbing devices and securing hardware before it leaves company property.

What about personal devices that connect to your company’s network? Obviously, you can’t control how and when those devices are used, recycled, or discarded, but you can still beef up your security. Change login information and company passwords often, and send out periodic memos reminding your remote and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) employees to delete their history and cookies in order to stay protected. That way, you can stay protected even in the event of a recycled personal device that was often connected to your company’s network.

Prioritizing “Reduce and Reuse” Over Recycling

As recycling has become so ubiquitous over the past decade, it’s easy to forget that recycling is, in fact, the last of the three “Rs”: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Thus, it should be the last step in a product’s life cycle. Start by minimizing your e-waste. Re-evaluate whether a new device is really necessary, or whether you should invest in a single unit that performs a variety of functions. You can also practice energy-saving habits that may help prolong the life of your electronic devices.

Most importantly, avoid sending your electronic devices to landfills, where harmful chemicals and metals can leach into the soil. Donate unused but functional devices to shelters, thrift stores, schools, or charitable organizations. Once you’ve exhausted all possibilities in regards to reducing your personal electronics collection and donating older items, you can consider recycling as a last resort.

Ultimately, it’s up to global citizens to ensure that electronic waste is properly recycled rather than routed to landfills. At an individual level, we should help spread the word on the importance of recycling and donating electronics rather than simply discarding them. Business owners and individuals alike should also take the extra steps needed to secure personal data before choosing to recycle electronics.

Maggie Potter

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