Despite Americans’ increased dependence on cellphones and other technology, the amount of electronic waste generated in the United States has shrunk 10% since 2015. The decline is due to the phasing out of bulky products, such as large cathode-ray tube televisions and computer monitors, according to a new study.

The research, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, found that in addition to a decline in total e-waste mass, the sheer number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is also leveling off or shrinking.

That’s because devices nowadays serve multiple purposes: gaming consoles, for example, also act as DVD players, and smartphones as cameras and video recorders.

The findings “cut against the widely held idea that electronic waste is the ‘fastest-growing waste stream,’” said Reid Lifset, the editor-in-chief of the Yale University-based Journal of Industrial Ecology. “It shifts our understanding of the problem with e-waste.”

Callie Babbitt, a sustainability scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and co-author of the new study, said the study indicates it may be time to rethink e-waste recycling regulations. Only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most currently set targets based on total mass.

Officials should also aim to recycle e-waste not just to keep lead and mercury out of landfills, but to capture rare, valuable elements such as cobalt and indium to “ensure domestic supply,” said Shahana Althaf, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology. We need to “see waste as a resource,” she said.

* Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news.

* This digest item originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 on Dec. 30, 2020, and is published through the Institute for Nonprofit News network.

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