Hundreds of years after the Industrial Revolution, our world continues to be dependent on technology. If anything, the effort to keep making innovations hinges on the idea that we can always do more and that modern problems require modern solutions.
Wearables are a great example of this solution. These devices combine functionality, style, and convenience, three elements a tech-savvy person on the go thoroughly enjoys and craves.
As the latest fad to hit store shelves around the world and get sold out quickly, wearables show us how innovation also drives consumer behavior. As the demand for wearables increases, so does production, which leads us to this question: are they sustainable?
Like any other gadget out there, a wearable may eventually become obsolete as new, better models take its place. It will be discarded as electronic waste (e-waste), and as such, it may even pose some environmental hazards.
If you’re planning to buy a wearable or you already own one and want to know how you can dispose of it responsibly, this resource page is for you. Read on to find out more about sustainable wearables.
What Is a Wearable?
Wearable technology refers to gadgets that one wears the whole day with the purpose of tracking activities and recording certain information. These devices are usually synced or connected to your mobile phone, and they transmit your recorded data through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Wearables may come in the following forms and with these functions:
- Smartwatches—they function like regular wristwatches, but you can also receive notifications about emails and text messages from your phone, make calls, and even stream music.
- Fitness trackers—they allow you to monitor vital health stats like your heart rate, sleeping hours, and walking average. However, their data does not replace the information you get from actual lab tests, doctor’s appointments, and medical procedures.
- Safety trackers—as the name implies, these devices are intended to keep you safe in case of emergencies. They may be occasionally designed to look like ordinary jewelry or accessories while they discreetly help you send alarms or alerts.
Making a Case for Sustainable Wearables
All those functions listed above are great reasons for you to own a wearable. For one, you can multitask using only one device, and it’s incredibly lightweight. You may be walking down the street or standing in a cramped train, but you can still check important correspondence without pulling out your phone.
Meanwhile, the data in a fitness tracker helps you improve your health regimen and structure your daily activities based on some of those stats.
However, those benefits still come with a whole set of disadvantages. The fact remains that wearables will become e-waste, and as it stands, the amount of e-waste produced worldwide is already alarming. The Global E-waste Monitor reports that 44.7 million tons of e-waste was produced worldwide in 2016.
That number is even projected to reach 52.2 million metric tons by 2021.
Despite the trendiness of wearables, people may be less likely to keep wearing them once the novelty wears off. A 2016 paper by Lee et al points out that “one third of American consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months.” In that case, the notion that wearables are made to improve your quality of life—which is one indicator of sustainability—doesn’t hold water.
The researchers suggest that wearables can be better designed so their functions serve deeper purposes, such as the following:
- Assisting people with illnesses—using more insightful and significant physiological tracking can help health care providers and family members monitor a patient’s condition and provide remote rehabilitation.
- Improving relief operations during disasters—wearables can provide data culled from environmental variables and the health status of first responders and victims to help determine efficient courses of action.
- Assisting persons with disabilities—wearables can help visually impaired people avoid obstacles while walking or operate complicated devices that a person with vision can easily operate.
There are other ways to make wearables sustainable: recycling, donating, and reselling. These are simple actions you can take as a responsible consumer looking for safe, ethical ways to get rid of e-waste.
There are many reasons you should recycle wearables, and the first (and most important) of which is that recycling helps mitigate the deleterious effects of excessive dumping in landfills. The world is creating so much waste already, and as the dumped items decompose, they contribute to the production of greenhouse gases. Any effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will help battle climate change.
The second reason is that not every wearable that’s thrown out is dysfunctional or beyond repair. The device itself may be disassembled, and some of its components may be cleaned and/or modified to create an entirely new product out of the recycled materials. Manufacturing products using recycled materials requires lesser energy consumption and reduces the demand for limited, valuable resources.
In the case of batteries in wearables, one may throw away the batteries if they are dry-cell batteries, although it’s still much better to recycle them. Alkaline batteries and rechargeable batteries, however, may contain toxic chemicals like lithium, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and they could endanger those who handle garbage. Such batteries are best sent to facilities that deal with hazardous wastes.
Another reason to motivate you to recycle wearables is that it contributes to a healthy economy by creating jobs in the manufacturing and recycling industries.
Where Can You Send Wearables for Recycling?
The following groups may accept wearables for recycling:
- Local recycling facilities—make sure to go for electronics recyclers certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You are assured that these groups have passed rigorous standards and follow safe and proper disposal techniques.
- Government-sponsored deposit and refund programs
- Drop-off centers
- Retailers and manufacturers—companies like Apple accept old Apple Watches and may even give in-store credits as compensation.
- Local communities—these include crafters and those who do repair work.
- Nonprofit organizations—these groups may initiate recycling projects to raise funds for specific causes.
As physical visits to any of the abovementioned groups may not be possible given our current situation, you may as well do an online search of recycling facilities near you. Each group may have its own guidelines on which items qualify for recycling and on the preferred collection methods.
If you prefer a more meaningful and personal approach, donating your wearables may be right up your alley. Churches and other charitable institutions are more than willing to accept donations, and there are underprivileged people who can certainly benefit from your kindness. Remember, though, that you should only donate gently used items, unless those groups specifically state that they also accept broken items.
Do the following to guarantee a transparent and hassle-free transaction:
- Choose your charity carefully. Browse that group’s website for its contact information and programs. Check government regulators like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ensure that the charity is a legitimate organization, is not a scam, and is still in full operation.
- Always keep a paper trail of your transactions. Receipts, screenshots of emails, and other types of documentation will help settle any dispute, confirm that your donation was received, or serve as backup for when you’re filing your taxes.
If you have the entrepreneurial streak, reselling wearables is your best option. If you don’t have your own online store, you can look for companies that engage in the buy-and-sell business.
Don’t settle for the first offer you get. Look around, compare prices from other potential buyers, be detailed about the wearable you’re selling, and include high-resolution photos of the item so you can get the best deal. It also helps if you go for online stores because they have relatively lower overhead costs.
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Needhidasan, S., Samuel, M., & Chidambaram, R. (2014). Electronic Waste—An Emerging Threat to the Environment of Urban India. Journal of Environmental Health Science & Engineering, 12(1), 36.
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