How many of us have purchased a phone, computer or electronic device to replace an item that still works but perhaps is no longer as shiny as the latest release? What did you do with the old device? Do you know where it ended up?

Electronic and digital devices are all around us and increasingly influencing the decisions we make every day, but the downstream effects can easily be obscured from our perspective. As newer technology becomes ubiquitous, the issue of what to do with these items at the end of their useful life becomes more and more complicated.  

Many electronics today are designed for obsolescence. They are made with inferior components, have limited battery life, and short-term software support renders yesterday’s technological achievement into an unsupported paperweight. Many of these devices were never designed to be repaired by the user or taken apart for recycling.

The process of deconstructing these devices involves potential exposure to a variety of heavy metals such as lead or mercury, plastics treated with fire-retardant chemicals, not to mention the hours of tedium and frustration involved in a DIY fix that voids the warranty of the device that needs repair. 

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest-growing component of our collective waste stream in the United States and globally. Despite the scale of the issue, there is no federal legislation governing electronics disposal in the U.S., and Montana is one of 22 states that does not have regulations for e-waste recycling or disposal. This creates additional challenges for establishing a consistent and responsive process for managing electronic waste.

At the end of the day, most of our domestic e-waste goes to the landfill and a fair percentage of our recycled e-waste may eventually end up overseas, where others are left to deal with the environmental and social consequences. 

Institutions such as the University of Montana are major stakeholders in the procurement, use and disposition of computers and electronics. Beginning in summer 2018, UM hired its first Industrial Materials Coordinator to manage the university’s electronic waste and develop a more responsive and comprehensive program that works towards best practice within our community and among our peer universities. 

UM recycled nearly 35,000 pounds of computers and electronics last year. When computers and electronics reach the end of their useful life, UM sends the majority of surplus equipment to an R2 certified facility in Idaho. R2 certification is a third-party verified process that ensures that the operations of the facility uphold environmental and social standards in their e-recycling efforts.

The facility we work with disassembles items to recover valuable commodities that can be recycled and sold as raw materials for other products in the supply chain while reducing demand for mining new materials. To subsidize this service at UM, we proposed an advanced recovery fee (like a bottle bill) to help pay for electronic recycling on the front end that will ensure materials are recycled at end of life.

E-waste demonstration at UM during Earth Week.
E-waste demonstration at UM during Earth Week.

We know we can’t recycle our way to sustainable and we are redefining our e-recycling program to change the linear mindset that often characterizes electronic waste management. We know we can’t change university contracts, practices and policies overnight, but precedent does exist and we will continue to work toward better procurement alternatives, reuse options, EPEAT certifications, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) agreements. 

Over the past several years campus departments have tightened their belts and been resourceful to extend the use of their computers and equipment. Framing this adaptation as an asset has enabled our E-recycling program to increasingly centralize the process for collection, testing, data security, and redistribution of computers to IT departments across the campus. By extending the use of any of our computers, we are reducing our footprint while distributing the benefit of the services provided with these items. 

One of the notable programs on campus demonstrating electronic reuse is MonTECH, who administers a statewide distribution network to rent, sell, and donate technology, support, and services to improve the quality of life for Montanans with disabilities. MonTECH maintains a growing inventory of technological resources while supporting a growing demographic who all benefit from access to equipment that can be difficult to acquire. 

Beyond the wall of the campus, UM is nurturing a partnership with the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s School Computer Redistribution Program. We are excited about how this program allows us to coordinate with public schools across Montana that may be able to use surplus equipment from the university. 

This past year, we have taken positive steps to develop a more responsive and responsible program for e-recycling at the University of Montana. Most notable of our accomplishments is the conversations that have been kindled and the general awareness across campus that we are collectively a part of this effort. We recognize that we share many of the same challenges seen in our broader community and we hope to be a partner with the many individuals and organizations that are seeking to create a more resilient and localized solution for our sustainability challenges. 

Derek Kanwischer is the Industrial Materials Coordinator at the University of Montana. Derek is a certified TRUE Zero Waste Advisor, an ISSP Sustainability Associate, and Master’s student in UM’s MPA program. This column is part of a 2019 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

August 7-11. Help with Sustainability & Zero Waste at the Western Montana Fair. Want to help with the Fair’s ZERO by FIFTY initiative? Sign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Ambassador!

All summer. Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.