Recycling electronic waste is the process of extracting valuable materials after shredding the electronic waste into small pieces that can be reused in a new electronic device. But some current challenges are hampering the growth of the electronics recycling industry.
Electronic items must be handled with care from the moment they are returned to waste. They contain chemical elements and the moment an electronic item is misused it is very simple to cause damage to the environment. For this reason, the moment we throw them in a corner of the house, during the e-waste removal process, transporting them and even recycling them, they must be treated with special care.
Electronic waste refers to discarded electrical equipment. About 50 to 60 million tons of electronic waste are generated each year, which is only 2-3% of global waste per year. However, the damage that this amount of waste causes to our health and the environment can exceed the destructive power of all other combined waste. Because electronic waste contains toxic materials, such as lead, cadmium, and beryllium, after being exposed to strong UV radiation or corroding for other physical or chemical reasons, toxic materials can be released into the atmosphere, penetrate the soil, and spill into the ground or nearby water bodies, which affects public health.
This alone should keep people from throwing e-waste in the bins; you should check if some government or private organizations such as the British company Junk Bunk Ltd waste removal offer services, sometimes free, to collect e-waste from your homes. This includes large electronic devices such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and TVs. Often these organizations or businesses ensure that valuable parts of your e-waste are recovered for potential secondary use, and harmful materials are disposed of before disposing of the rest in landfills.
Recycling e-waste has all sorts of benefits in addition to protecting 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 indispensable in our lives from being stopped until alternatives are found. Although in some cases non-renewable resources are not necessarily uncommon, 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 be found almost everywhere, is on the rise. Lithium is widely used in many industries but is best known for its importance in the production of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Increased public attention to electric vehicles as a way to decarbonise transport has led to an increase in lithium demand. Yet the market failed to cope with this sudden jump in demand, which led to a shortage of lithium – not a shortage, but a slow pace of production and refining. 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 environmentally friendly at a lower cost.
Current challenges for e-waste recycling
Only 17.4% of documented e-waste was recycled in 2019. This may be due in part to the fact that many electronic devices today are not intended for recycling. Smartphones are getting lighter and thinner, and their batteries can no longer be removed, making recycling much more difficult and time-consuming. Manual sorting requires workers to be constantly exposed to toxic substances, albeit at a low level, for a long time, while these recyclable electronic devices require equipment to constantly upgrade their machines to keep up with changing technology, reducing incentives for businesses to recycle e-waste that is already difficult to dismantle.
Another problem facing the recycling industry is that currently only 10 out of 60 chemical elements present in e-waste can be recycled by machining: gold, silver, platinum, cobalt, tin, copper, iron, aluminium, and tin.
Recycling e-waste not only prevents the entry of toxic substances into our bodies and the environment, but the process also reduces the harmful effects on the environment created by the extraction of primary materials. In addition, the potential economic benefits that can be derived from this industry are enormous. Discarded e-waste in 2019 alone is worth more than $57 billion. However, many problems still need to be overcome before the industry can reach its full potential, including electronics manufacturers designing more recyclable products and further machining research into recycling other chemical products and elements.