Recycling is everywhere and ever more important. The focus is often on recycling household waste, such as cans and paper. Of course, doing more to recycle plastic to prevent harm to our oceans is also, rightly, more prevalent. However, we also generate huge amounts of e-waste every day. The problem has grown along with the popularity of mobile phones and other devices we regularly replace. Given increasing awareness of environmental concerns, the importance of recycling E-waste is more prominent than ever before.
What is E-Waste?
E-Waste stands for Electronic Waste. Broadly e-waste refers to consumers' or businesses' electronic equipment and devices at the end of useful life and due to be discarded.
E-Waste includes items such as computer equipment, mobile phones, and televisions. It also encompasses the materials involved in their manufacture. Waste, of course, refers to the fact that these devices are not reused or recycled. Instead, they are often sent to landfills.
Some of the definitions vary. For example, there is some debate as to whether e-waste includes appliances such as fridges or microwaves. Sometimes, recycling facilities can treat these separately. Do check with your local council or recycling depot to find out how they treat e-waste and electronic recycling.
How much E-Waste do we produce?
We have become a throw-away society. When items are no longer required because of their age or when a new model is released we commonly throw away the old ones. We rarely repair but instead, we make more electronics purchases. This, in turn, contributes to the amount of waste we generate.
To exemplify the problem consider our use of mobile phones. In 2014 many news outlets (e.g. CNN) reported that the number of electronic gadgets in the world outnumbered humans. The maths was pretty simple and the situation since 2014 has only become more marked.
The US Census Bureau reports as of July 2019 a worldwide population of 7.5bn people. Meanwhile, GSMA Intelligence tracks real-time global mobile connections. They report today 9.2bn connections. That's 1.2 mobile connections to every person on earth.
Of course, the connection count consists of live mobile connections. However, our desire to have the latest model contributes to the importance of recycling E-Waste.
In the UK research shows that we replace our mobile phones every 26-27 months.5 In America, it's more like 21 months. As e-waste awareness has risen along with device cost this number is presently reducing slightly each year12. Smaller incremental improvements in how phones function also factors. This is somewhat good news for the flow of e-waste.
The Bigger Picture
Of course, mobile phones are not the only culprit. Other electronic items such as televisions and computers also play a part. As they have got bigger, faster and cheaper people are more likely to replace them sooner.
In 2016, the world generated 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste. Asia contributes the largest proportion of E-Waste. The platform for Accelerating Circular Economy forecasts that if the current trend continues E-Waste production will reach 120 million tonnes by 205013.
Collectively, we must do more to move away from throwing away items into landfills. Despite this, large volumes of electronic waste still end up in a landfill. The recycling facts and stats speak for themselves. It is estimated that only 20-25% of e-waste is formally recycled, with the remaining 75-80% being dumped in landfills.
There's also a significant financial cost. Staggeringly, the financial cost of e-waste globally is larger than most countries' GDP at $62.5bn.
The importance of recycling e-waste is paramount. Consumers and manufacturers need to make a conscious effort and play a part in helping to tackle this problem.
Benefits of Recycling E-Waste
It is all too easy to forget about the impact that throwing away e-waste has on the environment. We can now choose to recycle the majority of these devices completely. Effectively, reusing materials prevents devices from ending up in landfills, where problems begin.
Are you aware that e-waste contains an array of recyclable materials, metals, and minerals? This ranges from glass to plastics. And even metals including gold, aluminum, and copper. One of the benefits of recycling e-waste is being able to extract and reuse these precious metals.
According to the United Nations, the precious metal deposits found in e-waste are around 40 to 50 times richer than that of ore that is extracted from mines3. In fact, a tonne of e-waste contains 100 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore.
E-waste recycling enables precious metals recovery
Advances in technology now mean that we can now recover many of the precious metals in e-waste. Today, smelters recover most of these recycled materials and precious metals. However, biotechnology shows the potential to further improve the recovery process8. In doing so, making it more efficient and cost-effective.
Of course, if we fail to recycle our discarded electronic devices then it means that it will have an impact on the earth's natural resources. If we can recycle materials from e-waste, we can also help reduce the amount of mining, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and conserve our planet's precious natural resources.
Recycling E-waste conserves resources of heavy metals. Also, it provides a better way of obtaining them. Clearly, correctly recycling E-waste can help protect the environment.
The importance of recycling e-waste becomes even more apparent when considering the harm incorrect disposal can cause. Electronic devices contain toxic substances and materials including mercury and lead.
So, when incorrectly disposed of, these chemicals can cause harm to the environment. They can find their way into the air, the soil, and even water sources. In turn, this can then have a detrimental impact on humans, animals, and plants.
The black plastic recycling problem
Black Plastic is a key aspect of e-Waste toxicity. We'll all recognize that many of our electronic devices are black in color and made of black plastic. Today, black plastics make up around 15% of material recycled in the UK.
Industrial pigment colors black plastic, which causes a big part of the problem. Even if black plastic from e-waste is sent to be recycled4, this ever-present material is extremely hard for electronics recycling to deal with. Aside from the minerals used in our devices, it contains heavy metals and other chemical compounds used to color our devices.
Placing e-waste in landfills is not the solution to this problem. It cannot reduce the shocking figures and it cannot hide the harm that it is causing the environment9.
We are all to blame in some way for the impact of the incorrect disposal of e-waste on the environment. Waste management and improved methods to recycle electronic waste are crucial aspects of the entire process.
The Importance of E-Waste Recycling and the Developing World
Alarmingly, thousands of tonnes of e-waste and discarded electronic products manage to find their way to developing countries1 like Asia, India, and Africa. Here workers put themselves at risk and get paid very little taking the items apart for reuse. Or worse they end up in other countries' landfills.
For example, near Lagos, Nigeria, we can find the Ikeja Computer Village. Here market stalls sell some of the Western World's e-waste. Here a cottage recycling industry exists whereby workers refurbish discarded electronic products such as PCs and mobile phones for sale. A bustling trade results.
Much of this e-waste finds its way here illegally. Not least the EU bans the export of hazardous waste. Recently, between 2015 and 2017, researchers tracked the flow of E-Waste from Europe. They found that over 6% of E-Waste in Europe was exported10.
The UNEP reports that 60-90% of E-Waste is illegally traded or dumped. Where did it go? Africa was the most common destination. Of course, a lot of the trade is illegal presenting difficulties in arriving at exact figures. Further, with a growing population and the increasing popularity of technology, this only compounds the problem dealing with the amount of E-Waste Africa itself produces.
Dealing with E-Waste Disposal
However, this is only a part of the picture. 75% of the e-waste shipped to Nigeria is reported to be irreparable14. The problem then becomes what to do with the e-waste that results from the west's huge demand for new devices. Weak regulations, lower safety standards, and a mountain to deal with add to the knock-on human and environmental costs2.
E-waste in the developing world also regularly gets burnt. A 2016 study looked at one of the largest e-waste sites, Agbogblishie in Ghana. It found that workers involved in sorting, dealing, and dismantling e-waste all showed increased levels of harmful toxins. Workers worst affected throughout the recycling process burn e-waste for a living.
Opportunities in the Malaise
Despite the problems research has begun to point toward opportunities in e-waste. Opportunities can arise in the correct handling of E-waste if the infrastructure allows11 it.
Recovering gold and other valuable materials from mobile phones as well as other precious metals is a potential opportunity.
Also in Agbogblishie, the Ghanian government is moving forward. They are investing in an integrated e-waste recycling plant. This will result in 22000 jobs once commissioned. At this scale, the resale of the recovered raw materials from consumer electronics will help to sustain the future of the planet.
Further developments may also lead to improved e-waste mining. Researchers predict these improvements may result in alternatives to traditional mining. As such, presenting a viable potential alternative to e-waste pollution. And the human harm resulting from dumping and burning6.
How Can We Reduce Electronic Waste?
A significant number of projects now exist to help reduce electronic wastes harm. Thus, local management solutions are now in place in many countries. Companies working in e-waste recycling typically must adhere to specific laws and regulations. In turn, this provides peace of mind. This is especially the case for those looking to dispose of their cell phones and other devices in the right way.
Many manufacturers now show more consideration where electronic waste is concerned. As a result, some of the largest manufacturers in the world offer a send-back program. This removes millions of pounds of e-waste that would have otherwise found its way to landfills. Done well. they then put these devices to good use by recycling them and using them to create new products.
Shared responsibility for recycling e-waste
The importance of recycling e-waste also falls into the hands of consumers and how we use our devices. Perhaps we should consider extending the life of our products. Or use them beyond the date that an upgrade or a replacement should take place. Making the right decisions when using electronic devices can significantly help to improve the recycling figures of e-waste.
E-waste is a significant problem that we are facing on a global scale. We need to adopt a responsible approach to how we recycle e-waste. We must also consider what impact toxic chemicals are having on the environment and the resulting health risks.
Making a change requires several simple steps and changes to our consumer behaviors. Once we begin to recognize the importance of recycling e-waste and more people begin properly recycling we will soon begin to see a reduction in environmental pollution from our solid waste disposal.
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|Daum, K.; Stoler, J.; Grant, R.J. Toward a More Sustainable Trajectory for E-Waste Policy: A Review of a Decade of E-Waste Research in Accra, Ghana. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14, 135.
|United Nations University. "E-waste: Annual gold, silver 'deposits' in new high-tech goods worth $21B; less than 15% recovered." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 July 2012.
|Andrew Turner, Black plastics: Linear and circular economies, hazardous additives and marine pollution, Environment International, Volume 117, 2018, Pages 308-318, ISSN 0160-4120, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.036.
|Global Handset Sales Forecast by 88 Countries and 19 Technologies : 2003 to 2024. Strategy Analytics.
|Anane-Fenin, Kwame & Akinlabi, Esther. (2017). E-Waste Mining, An Alternative To Traditional Mining In Africa: A Review.
|Anna Oi Wah Leung, Chapter 15 - Environmental Contamination and Health Effects Due to E-waste Recycling, Editor(s): Majeti Narasimha Vara Prasad, Meththika Vithanage, Electronic Waste Management and Treatment Technology, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2019, Pages 335-362, ISBN 9780128161906, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-816190-6.00015-7.
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|Ramesh, B., Kuber, A., & Ahmed, C. (2007). Electrical and electronic waste: a global environmental problem. Waste Management & Research, 25(4), 307–318. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734242X07076941
|Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe. Basel Action Network (BAN). 2018.
|Kwadwo Ansong Asante, Yaw Amoyaw-Osei, Tetsuro Agusa, E-waste recycling in Africa: risks and opportunities, Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry, Volume 18, 2019, Pages 109-117, ISSN 2452-2236, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsc.2019.04.001.
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