When most people think of electronics recycling, they think of metals:  copper, aluminum, titanium and so on. These are the most common materials currently extracted from used electronics. There’s another valuable resource in those computers, smartphones and tablets, though — and it’s one that’s been largely overlooked by U.S. industry.

That resource is plastic.

What’s so valuable about used plastic?

By this time, everybody in the world understands that plastics — especially the plastic remains of old electronics — are piling up in mountains all over the planet. But all that plastic is far more than just ugly, toxic trash that we need to dispose of safely. It’s actually a resource that can help us cut down on petroleum use and lower global energy use.

A tremendous amount of the petroleum used in the world goes to make plastics. As an example, imagine you just bought a bottle of water at your local convenience store. Now in your mind’s eye, fill about one-quarter of that bottle with oil. That’s just about how much oil it took to create that bottle. Here in the United States we use more than 190 million barrels of petroleum products to make plastics every year. Across the world, about 8% of total oil production is used to create plastics.

By recycling plastic, we can cut back on our use of oil. Recycled plastic also uses less energy than making new plastic materials, so there’s a double benefit.

What’s the catch?

Here in the U.S. we’ve got simple plastic recycling down pat. One empty water bottle can easily be turned into a new water bottle. That’s “closed loop” recycling at its most basic. But recycling complex plastics, like the kind you find in your electronics, is a bit more complicated. In order to be recycled, these plastics have to be separated out several times — first to sort away the extraneous materials, then to sort out the different types of plastic (there are five types regularly used in manufacture) and finally they’ve even got to be sorted out by color before they’re ready to be re-shaped into a new product.

The process is complicated, and although a few companies in Europe have perfected it, the United States is lagging behind. In fact, one of the early innovators of the process, an American named Mike Biddle, brought his plastics recycling venture to the U.K. because of regulatory snags here at home. You can find out more about Mike and his innovative company, MBA Polymers, in his TED talk.

Can we close the e-plastics loop?

Despite being a few years behind the curve in e-plastics recycling, forward-thinking recyclers and manufacturers here are working to solve our growing plastics problem. The recent 2015 Plastics Recycling Conference in Dallas devoted major attention to the consumption, recovery and recycling of plastics in electronics, and we’re looking forward to the strategies that come out of that conference.

Recycling printer cartridges is a valuable first step in closed loop e-plastics recycling. Additional advances are being made in electronics manufacture, with Dell Computers leading the way. Last summer Dell announced the release of their OptiPlex 3030 — a computer made with recycled plastic.

Closed loop recycling can make the indestructible nature of plastic an asset rather than a liability. We look forward to a future when used electronics make new ones, instead of making a mountain of toxic trash.