Recycling is everywhere and ever more important. The focus is often on recycling more 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 growth in popularity of mobile phones and other devices that we regularly replace. Given increasing awareness of environmental concerns, the importance of recycling E-waste is more prominent than ever before.
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, referring to the fact that these devices are not reused or recycled. Instead, they are often sent to landfill.
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.
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, contributing 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 in realtime 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, it is our desire to have the latest model that contributes to the importance of recycling E-Waste.
In the UK research shows that we replace our mobile phones every 26-27 months.7 In America, it’s more like 21 months1. As e-waste awareness has risen along with device cost this number is presently reducing slightly each year15. Smaller incremental improvements in how phones function also factors. This is somewhat good news for the flow of E-Waste.
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. With Asia contributing the largest proportion of E-Waste10. The platform for Accelerating Circular Economy forecasts that if the current trend continues E-Waste production will reach 120 million tonnes by 205016.
Collectively, we must do more to move away from throwing away items into landfill. Despite this, large volumes of electronic waste still end up in a landfill. The figures 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 the GDP of most countries at $62.5bn17.
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.
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 landfill where the problems then 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, aluminium 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 mines5. In fact, a tonne of E-Waste contains 100 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore.
Advances in technology now mean that many of the precious metals in E-Waste can now be recovered. Today, smelters recover most of these precious metals. However, biotechnology shows potential to further improve the recovery process11. In doing so, making it more efficient and cost-effective.
Of course, if we fail to recycle our electronic devices then it means that it will have an impact on the earth’s natural resources. If we can recycle materials form E-waste then we can also help reduce the amount of mining. As a result, helping to conserve our planets 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 you consider the harm incorrect disposal can cause. Electronic devices contain toxic materials including mercury and lead18. So, if these devices are incorrectly disposed of then 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.
Black Plastic is a key aspect of E-Waste toxicity. We’ll all recognise that many of our electronic devices are black in colour and made of black plastic. Today, black plastics make up around 15% of material recycled in the UK.
Industrial pigment colours black plastic. This pigment causes a big part of the problem. Even if black plastic from E-Waste is sent to be recycled this ever-present material is extremely hard to recycle6. Black plastic, aside from the minerals used in our devices, itself contains heavy metals and other chemical compounds used to colour our devices.
Placing E-waste into landfill is not the solution to this problem. It cannot reduce the shocking figures and it cannot hide the harm that it is causing the environment12.
We are all to blame in some way for the impact that the incorrect disposal of E-waste is having on the environment. Waste management is a crucial aspect of the entire process.
Alarmingly, thousands of tonnes of E-Waste also manage to find their way to developing countries like Asia2, 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 Worlds E-Waste. Workers refurbish 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 exported13.
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 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.
However, this is only a part of the picture. 75% of the E-Waste shipped to Nigeria is reported to be irreparable19. The problem then becomes what to do with the E-Waste that results. Weak regulations, lower safety standards and a mountain to deal with add to the knock-on human and environmental costs3.
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 toxins4. Workers worst affected burn E-Waste for a living.
Despite the problems research has begun to point towards opportunities in E-Waste. Opportunities can arise in the correct handling of E-waste if the infrastructure allows14.
Recovering gold 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 will help to sustain the plants future.
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 burning8.
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 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 landfill. Done well. they then put these devices to good use by recycling them and using them to create new products.
The importance of recycling E-waste also falls to 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 recycling approach. We must also consider what impact toxic chemicals are having on the environment and resulting health risks.
Making a change requires several simple steps and changes to our consumer behaviours. Once we begin to recognise the importance of recycling E-waste and more people begin properly recycling we will soon begin to see a change.
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