Consumer electronics are one of the most complicated products we know how to make. The average cell phone is made up of at least 500 components—most of them a complicated cocktail of different materials.
That makes recycling electronics way more difficult than something like a tin can. A typical cell phone, for example, is about 40% metals, but the metals are alloyed together. Recyclers have to untangle each metal from the blend before it can be put back on the market.
Some metals, like critical rare earth elements, are too difficult or too expensive to separate out for recycling. Roughly half of the metals in a cell phone are lost in a recycler’s smelter.
The best shot we have at reducing the environmental impact of our electronics is to keep them around for as long as possible.
Repair is the first line of defense against waste. It extends the life of electronics: users can replace broken components, put in a better battery, or upgrade to higher-capacity RAM whenever they want. That means less stuff in landfills and less things in a recycler’s shredder.
And it doesn’t stop with the owner. Manufacturers can repair their products, too. 65% of all cell phones collected in the US are refurbished or repaired, then resold—not recycled. That’s because recyclers make an average of about 50 cents per recycled phone. Resellers, for comparison, average $20 per phone.
Even better, when stuff is repaired, it holds on to all the energy and all the materials it used up during manufacturing. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost.