What happens to all of the electronics that we throw away? These discarded products, including cell phones, TVs, air conditioners, appliances, computers, and solar panels, are collectively known as e-waste, and unfortunately most is not recycled. Due to the heavy metals they contain, improper disposal can leak toxins into the environment and water supply (or into the air, in the case of incineration). According to the U.N. University’s Global E-waste Monitor 2014 report, only 6.5 metric tons (Mt) of the global total of 41.8Mt of e-waste last year were “documented and recycled with the highest standards.” Driven by increases in population as well as per-capita use and disposal of electronics, the quantity of e-waste being generated has been on the rise, from 33.8Mt in 2010 to a predicted 49.8Mt in 2018. There are two interconnected aspects to this global problem: a lack of awareness among the general public for the need to recycle e-waste, and a scarcity of sustainable options to actually do so. But around the world, progress – however piecemeal it may be — is being made on both fronts, as two examples from Wednesday demonstrate.
First was the launch of an e-waste awareness and collection campaign by Swedish firm Ericsson and MTN Côte d’Ivoire in the Ivoirian capital Abidjan. A collection center manned by volunteers will be in place for four months, after which the e-waste will be transported to an Ericsson-approved recycling partner in South Africa. Beyond CSR, Ericsson has made taking back and recycling its obsolete products a key part of its business– it provides free product retrieval and safe disposal services to all customers globally. The firm claims that when it takes back its products, over 98% of the materials are recycled.
And Ericsson’s “ecology management program” is expanding in breadth and depth. Since its formal start in 2005, the program has taken back e-waste from more than 107 countries. For example, in January a similar e-waste collection campaign was launched by Ericsson and MTN Benin (another West African country). Furthermore, the firm stated that “Product take-back and recycling levels have increased significantly, from 9,800 tons in 2013 to 15,900 tons in 2014.”
Although precise figures do not currently exist, West Africa is one of the regions harmed most by e-waste, since large quantities from around the world are dumped there, often illegally. So Dr. Allah Kouadio Remy, Ivoirian Minister of Environment, Public Health, and Sustainability, warmly embraced the Ericsson-MTN campaign, adding “I would also like to take the opportunity to invite all the other companies that are not yet involved in sustainability to embrace it.”
Wednesday’s other notable e-waste news concerned the technical side of the recycling challenge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had awarded $100,000 to New York-based firm Advanced Recovery and Recycling, LLC, to continue its development of an efficient technology that recycles circuit board components. The firm’s innovation automatically and rapidly removes electronic parts from printed circuit boards, which are found in virtually all electronics. “This is accomplished without burning, smelting, or using chemicals, which reduces air pollution and electronic waste in landfills and incinerators,” the EPA stated. If the technology becomes commercially viable, the firm will be able to apply for a second federal grant of up to $300,000 to bring it to market.
The most encouraging news for e-waste recycling is that it can be done profitably. The potential of this so-called “urban mining” is enormous—the U.N. report estimated that the intrinsic material value of global e-waste was $54.5 billion in 2014, principally from gold, copper, and plastics. Granted, there are also toxic materials including lead and mercury in e-waste, so much processing and refining is necessary to extract the useful elements. But in aggregate and individually, the prize is very appealing. The report states that the gold content from e-waste in 2014 is roughly 300 tons, which represents 11% of the global gold production from mines in 2013.
And as far as mining prospects go, e-waste is one of the better ones, especially when there are smartphones in the mix. According to 911 Metallurgist, a ton of iPhones would yield about 324 times more gold than a ton of ore from Peru’s Yanacocha gold mine, and 13 times more copper than a ton of ore from Chile’s Escondida copper mine. Valuable rare earth elements (REEs) in smartphones could also be extracted and recycled. Currently, less than 1% of REEs are recycled, so reusing them could not only save money but lessen global dependence on China, which produces the vast majority of the world’s REEs.
And meanwhile, the Chinese government and local NGOs have been taking the challenge of e-waste seriously. In 2013 China reported that it had recycled 28% of its e-waste in state-of-the-art facilities, a higher share than in the U.S. and Canada (12%) and Australia (1%). Since it began in 2012, a “Green IT Classrooms” program by Chinese NGO Netspring has enabled the recycling of more than 20 tons of e-waste while providing IT education to more than 20,000 underprivileged kids.
Likewise, India is trying to rein in and recycle its e-waste before things get out of hand. By 2020 the country predicts that it could recover some $4 billion from recycling its e-waste. To get the ball rolling, Eco Recycling Limited, an Indian e-waste management company, launched a social drive on October 2 in which it plans to set up 100,000 e-waste collection bins in schools, colleges, and religious places. It also proposes to establish 5,000 take-back points across India to collect the waste from these bins. As with many countries, regulations regarding e-waste may be on the books but are hardly known and rarely enforced; however, with private-sector backing, real changes are now happening.
S.C. Lenny Koh, coauthor of a recent study on Europe’s e-waste recycling potential, believes that recycled e-waste could eventually replace virgin material from mines, although that would require more top-down policy. “If there’s a global directive that collectively drives this agenda—that resource efficiency, recovery, and sustainability has to be embedded into every business and supply chain—then businesses will start to take this seriously,” she said.
As demand for recycled materials increases, and as more countries start to make manufacturers responsible for dealing with e-waste at the end of life, more designers may also start to change designs with recycling in mind. “If we can start from the design stage, and make sure it’s designed in a way so that it can be easily dismantled for disassembly and recycling, that reduces the need for energy in recycling downstream,” says Koh. “That will improve the resource efficiency, and make the circular economy business model more viable.”
Lastly, for the individual consumer, there are more and more opportunities to properly dispose of e-waste, much of which will be recycled. In the U.S., there are numerous events hosted by municipalities, businesses, and non-profits like the Boy Scouts, which typically accept e-waste free of charge. Presently, not all of these collection drives are free, and some don’t accept all kinds of e-waste. But it’s doubtful that consumers would be willing to pay to dispose of junk, so the trend is for e-waste collection to be free and all-inclusive. And particularly as e-waste catches on as a source material for extracting valuable materials, firms will be eager to offer recycling for free, since they will ultimately be earning money. Combined with reducing landfill intakes and environmental pollution, this is a growth industry that’s win-win for everyone.