E-waste recycling is the process of extracting valuable materials after shredding the e-waste into tiny pieces that could be reused in a new electronic appliance. But a number of current challenges are preventing the electronic recycling industry from scaling up. On Global Recycling Day, which every year falls on March 18, we explore how e-waste recycling is done and why we should focus on scaling it up.
Electronic waste or e-waste refers to discarded electric appliances. Each year, about 50 to 60 million tons of e-waste are generated, equivalent to only 2-3% of annual global waste. Yet, the damage that this amount of waste poses to our health and the environment may exceed the destructive power of all other wastes combined. Since e-waste contains toxic materials, such as lead, cadmium, and beryllium, once it is exposed to strong UV radiation or corrodes due to any other physical or chemical reasons, toxic materials could be released into the atmosphere, infiltrate the soil, and flow into the water bodies nearby, affecting public health.
This alone should prompt people not to throw e-waste into rubbish bins; you should check out if any governmental or private organisations offer services, sometimes free of charge, to collect e-waste from your homes. This includes large electronic devices such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and televisions. Often, these organisations or enterprises ensure the valuable parts of your e-waste are extracted for potential second uses, and harmful materials are separated before disposing the rest to landfills.
E waste recycling has all sorts of benefits in addition to the protection of human health and the environment. Most of the materials that make up our computers and smartphones are derived from non-renewable minerals; recycling these materials can prevent the supply of consumer goods that become inevitable in our lives from being suspended until substitutions are discovered. Although in certain cases, the non-renewable resources are not necessarily rare, the recycling of non-renewable but common minerals still has economic benefits.
For example, the price of lithium, a non-renewable but relatively common mineral that can almost be found everywhere, has been booming. Lithium is widely used in multiple industries but is most known for its importance in the production of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. The increased public attention on electric vehicles as a way to decarbonise transportation saw the demand for lithium soar. Yet, the market has failed to keep up with this sudden surge in demand, causing lithium to be in short supply – not scarcity but from the slow pace of extraction and refinement. Recycling lithium-ion batteries will provide an additional supply of lithium to the market, allowing businesses to produce batteries and electric vehicles that are customer-friendly as well as environmental-friendly at a lower price.
You might also like: How Soaring E-Waste Pollution Is Putting Lives at Risk
How is E-Waste Recycling Done?
E-waste recycling is much more complicated than conventional waste recycling. Typically, the first step of the recycling process is manual sorting. Once e-waste is collected and transported to the recycling facilities, workers sort the e-waste into categories according to their types and models. Then, all electronic devices will be examined, and of which the parts that are still functional will be extracted to be reused; they can either be sold as individual parts or be combined to form a new phone or computer. The e-waste left behind that is not functional will be sent to recycling processing.
Here, e-waste is thrown into an enormous machine and is shredded into tiny pieces, but before that, it must first go through a process called de-manufacturing, which refers to the action of disassembling a product into components. This procedure is to remove all the potentially hazardous materials in electronic devices that will destroy the machine or contaminate the environment once disposed into landfills. For example, the toner that can be found in a photocopier is extremely flammable and explosive, and is certainly capable of blowing up the processing equipment if it gets shredded, given that so many things can act as fuel sources, such as plastic. This process is of utmost importance and must be performed by skilful workers.
Once waste is shredded, metals, the valuable parts that make the e waste recycling a profitable industry, will be separated. Unlike the former sessions, this process does not require manual sorting. A giant magnet will first attract all the ferromagnetic materials, like iron and steel, that have high susceptibilities to magnetisation. Then, further mechanical processing separates other metals and alloys based on a physical law called Eddy Current, where paramagnetic materials, materials that are weakly attracted to magnets will be bounced away when an electric current is induced by an alternating magnetic field with a repulsive force, while other non-magnetic materials, like plastic, will simply keep going.
Next, the waste is further separated with water. At this stage, almost everything leftover are non-magnetic materials; they will go through another machine filled with water, where materials with a low relative density, mostly plastic, will flow, while other materials, like glass, will sink. Finally, before recycled materials are sold, is to check if there are any remaining valuable materials stuck to the plastic.
Current Recycling Challenges
Only 17.4% of documented e-waste was recycled in 2019, according to Statista. This can be partially ascribed to the fact that many electronic devices today are not designed to be recycled. Smartphones are becoming lighter and slimmer, and their batteries are no longer removable, making recycling much more difficult and labour-intensive. Manual sorting requires workers to be constantly exposed to toxic substances, albeit at a low level, over a long period, while these difficult-to-recycle electronic devices require facilities to constantly upgrade their machines to keep up with the changing technology, lowering the incentive for businesses to recycle e-waste that is already difficult to disassemble.
Another problem the recycling industry is dealing with is that, currently, only 10 out of 60 chemical elements present in e-waste can be recycled through mechanical processing: gold, silver, platinum, cobalt, tin, copper, iron, aluminium, and lead.
Recycling e-waste not only prevents toxic substances from entering our bodies and into the environment, but the process also reduces the harmful environmental impacts created by the extraction and mining of virgin materials. Besides, the potential economic benefits that can be derived from this industry are enormous. The discarded e-waste in 2019 alone was worth more than US$57 billion. Yet, many problems still need to be conquered before the industry can reach its full potential, including electronic producers and manufacturers designing more recycling-friendly products and further research on mechanical processing in the recycling of the rest of the chemical elements.
You might also like: Global E-Waste Will Weigh More Than the Great Wall of China