Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the name for electronic products nearing the end of their life. This includes unwanted electronic equipment, including computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines, and common electronics, such as batteries, fluorescent lights, wiring, and larger appliances, such as refrigerators, electronic stoves, washing machines, and dishwashers. However, the definition of e-waste is likely to expand, as more consumers are more likely to replace electronics before they have reached the end of their life, and many of those electronics are thrown out rather than disposed of properly.
E-waste covers a large range of products, from large items with heavy weights, to smaller and more popular and consumable items that may not be recycled as often. Many popular types of e-waste include the following:
- Vacuum cleaners
- Ventilation equipment
- Electric kettles
- Electric shavers
- Radio sets
- Video cameras
- Electrical toys
- Electrical and electronic tools
- Medical devices
- Monitoring and control instruments
- Washing machines
- Clothes dryers
- Electric stoves
- Printing and copy machines
- Solar panels
- Refrigerators and freezers
- Air conditioners and heat pumps
This waste includes toxins such as mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium, and arsenic. Because of these toxins, e-waste, when not properly disposed of, is harmful to the environment and human health. E-waste comprises around 70 percent of overall toxic waste, according to some estimates, which also found only 12.5 percent of all e-waste is recycled, while 85 percent of e-waste the ends in landfills and incinerators and release harmful toxins.
E-waste constitutes around 5 percent of the global solid waste and has gone up with the increased sale of electronic products globally. A majority of the world's e-waste ends up in developing countries, where informal and hazardous setups are common. There is also a significant amount of illegal transboundary movement of e-waste in the form of donations and charity from industrialized countries to developing countries. Profiteers from e-waste can harvest profits owing to lax environmental laws, corrupt officials, and poorly paid workers in these countries.
Meanwhile, e-waste contains, other than hazardous materials, valuable materials (sometimes the materials are both hazardous and valuable) that require special handling and, when and where possible, can be recovered through recycling methods. The safe handling of used electronics and e-waste has caused serious concerns. Much of the waste is shipped from the country where they are tossed out and end up in Asia and Africa. There, the e-waste are often processed with open-air burning and acid baths to recover valuable materials from components, which expose workers to harmful substances, while those same toxic materials can leach into the environment.
When e-waste is disposed of by dismantling, shredding, or melting the materials, they can release dust particles or toxins, such as dioxins, which can cause air pollution and damage to respiratory health. This air pollution impacts animal species, human health, and the biodiversity of a region, especially if those regions are chronically polluted. And air pollution can lead to decreased quality in water, soil, and plant species, creating near irreversible damage in ecosystems; while the toxins, when inhaled or ingested by animal life, wildlife, or humans can cause neurological damage.
When disposed of in regular landfills, e-waste leaches heavy metals and flame retardants from the e-waste into the soil, contaminating underlying groundwater that can contaminate crops planted nearby. The absorption of these heavy metals by crops can cause many illnesses and reduce the production of the affected farmland. The amount of soil contaminated depends on a range of factors, including temperature, soil type, pH levels, and soil composition. As the contaminants remain in the soil for a long time, they can be harmful to microorganisms and eventually contaminate animals and wildlife in the area as they consume affected plants, causing internal health problems.
Heavy metals from e-waste, such as mercury, lithium, lead, and barium, can leak through the earth and soil to reach groundwater. This groundwater can then bring the heavy metals into ponds, streams, rivers, lakes, and larger seaways. These pathways can increase the acidification and toxification in the water, creating water unsafe for animals, plants, and communities. The toxification of water makes clean drinking water harder to find, while killing marine and freshwater organisms, disturbing biodiversity, and further harming ecosystems to the point when recovery is questionable.
As noted above, the effects of e-waste largely stem from the heavy metals and toxic materials involved in their construction, which can leach from the waste, whether recycled or thrown into landfills. They can permeate the ecosystem near a landfill or recycling center and, as a downstream effect, lead to negative effects on human health, either through the consumption of these metals through the food supply chain or as a direct effect of working at an e-waste facility or landfill.
Many components contain toxins dangerous to human health, including mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium, and lithium. These toxins cause negative health effects on the brain, heart, liver, kidney, and skeletal system, as well as to the nervous and reproductive systems, leading to disease and birth defects. The adverse effects on unborn children, especially when a mother is exposed to these toxins, include stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, an increased risk of mental health disorders, behavioral problems, reduced cognitive abilities, damage to a child's respiratory system, and an increased chance to develop chronic diseases later in their life.
The preferred option when dealing with e-waste is recycling. But this is not a perfect process, as much of the recycling process is slow and inefficient. And as noted above, many of the nations that recycle electronics have the waste exported to them from other countries, and the countries where the recycling occurs tend to be those where labor laws and safety laws are not as exacting as the countries exporting their electronic waste. This exposes vulnerable individuals to these health concerns raised by working with e-waste.
Recycling e-waste refers more to reprocessing and reusing electronic waste as a process of recovering material from discarded items as much as it is a process of reusing the devices themselves. While the recycling itself can be dangerous, it can reduce the potential hazards and pollutants presented by e-waste. The EPA has found that by recycling 1 million smartphones, around 35,000 pounds of copper, 33 pounds of palladium, 772 pounds of silver, and 75 pounds of gold can be recovered. And in 2016, the EPA estimated around 45 million tons of e-waste was produced globally, with only around 25 percent of that recycled. As well, in 2019, the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) found that 17.4 percent of e-waste was properly recycled, preventing as much as 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.
Materials extracted and reused from e-waste recycling
Scrap batteries can be used to recover cadmium, steel, nickel, and cobalt for reuse in new batteries, and they have been used for fabricating stainless steel.
Circuit boards can be recycled by accredited and specialized companies, which smelt and recover resources from the boards including tin, gold, silver, copper, palladium, and other valuable metals.
Glass can be extracted from CRTs of computer monitors and televisions, although CRTs contain several hazardous substances, and the recycling process can use washing lines to clear phosphors and oxides from the glass, while ferrous and non-ferrous objects are removed the glass, which can then be further sorted and used in new products.
Hard disks can be shredded and processed to recover aluminum ingots.
Devices containing mercury may be sent to recycling facilities, which use specialized technology to either eliminate or recovery the mercury. The end product from this can include metric instruments, dental amalgams, and fluorescent lighting.
There is a generalized recycling process used for almost all e-waste, which includes a process that shreds the e-waste into its various component parts, which can be further recycled through more specialized methods. But the general process follows a similar path:
Although obvious, the first step in any recycling process will be the collection of e-waste. This can be done through recycling bins, collection locations, take-back programs, and on-demand collection services. It is important, as uncollected e-waste cannot be properly recycled. The mixed e-waste is taken to specialized electronics recyclers. Sometimes it will be sorted before it is dropped off at a collection site, while other times it will be sorted at the time it is dropped off at the recyclers, or the recyclers will sort through the recycling themselves.
Either way, sorting the e-waste is important, as any e-waste containing batteries requires special handling and treatment, as these batteries can be very damaging if mixed with other waste, and if they for any reason puncture or catch fire, they can cause further damage to not just recycled e-waste bu the facilities as well.
While it may not seem crucial, storage can be important, especially with the above example of batteries, or in the case of Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens, which are highly contaminated by lead; if they are broken unsafely, they can cause damage to human health and the environment. With change in screen technology, many CRT products are being stored indefinitely rather than being recycled for their component parts or glass because of lead contamination.
Once sorted and stored, e-waste can go through the initial stages of manual sorting, which removes specific products for their own processing, while most components at this stage can be manually dismantled for components, reuse, or the recovery of valuable materials. E-waste is then shredded into small pieces, allowing for accurate sorting of materials and breaking those materials into small pieces capable of being separated mechanically.
The mechanical separation of different materials consists of several processes, one after another, to capture specific materials. The following are the key steps in the separation process:
- Magnetic separation: The shredded e-waste is passed under a magnet, which is able to pull ferrous metals, such as iron and steel, from the mix of waste, and an eddy current can be used to separate the nonferrous material. These materials can be diverted to other recycling streams for smelting.
- Water separation: With a solid waste stream of mostly plastic and glass, water is used to separate and further purify materials for the separation of different plastics and hand sorting of obvious contaminants.
Once the materials are fully separated, they can be further prepared for sale and reuse. For some materials, such as plastic or steel, this means joining more recycling streams, while others may be processed onsite to be sold with other usable components separated in the early stages.
For some items, the general recycling process may not be applied; rather, they may receive a specific and unique recycling process for safe handling of these items, and for best capability for reuse of the items. Below are some of these processes:
- Batteries: Batteries are sorted by chemistry (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride, or lithium-ion), with combustible materials burned off and a scrubber used to capture polluting particles and gases. The metal cells are captured to be further recycled, while non-metal components are burned into slag.
- Cathode ray tubes: These are considered troublesome to recycle; most of their components can be separated and broken down, but they can contain as much as four pounds of lead per CRT, which represents a significant contaminant and means this glass cannot join other glass recycling streams.
- Computers and laptops: While the process for recycling laptops and computers is similar to the general process, there is often a greater focus and greater care taken in regard to manual sorting and separation, as many components can be combined into new computers with no extra resources. This process also often involves some level of data destruction.
There are various challenges associated with e-waste recycling programs and increasing diversion rates. Many chemicals, such as heavy metals and other substances harmful to the environment, can create difficulties in the recycling process, and hazardous waste in most cases has to be carefully disassembled and handled. Much of the e-waste is exported to developing countries without access to either the facilities, capabilities, or safety equipment to break down and process these hazardous materials.
However, even when the e-waste makes it to the recycling plant, the recycling plant may engage in recycling activities that have further environmental impacts, such as burning plastics to recover metals without filters, leading to increased emissions. This is partially a problem of treating all e-waste as a single recycling stream, when they can be different, such as a refrigerator or a smartphone, which both have significantly different recycling methods. And in the case of the smartphone, as they are manufactured to be more cohesive, these devices are increasingly difficult to recycle as materials become harder to separate, leading to more costly and time-consuming processes, which make recyclers less likely to spend time on separating them or processing them properly.
Further, even when using a proper recycler or program that will recycle without exporting to another country, the program in question will often only accept certain electronic items. This will be based on what facilities and capabilities the recycling plant will have. While this is responsible, as it means these recyclers will not try and recycle materials they are otherwise incapable of processing, it creates challenges for consumers as they try to recycle and may only have certain types of recyclers in their immediate area, which can increase the amount of e-waste entering landfills.
As noted above, improperly managed e-waste, including that sent to landfills and incinerators, releases toxic chemicals into the ground, air, and water supplies. Some pollutants released through e-waste mismanagement include lead, barium, phosphor, beryllium, cadmium, mercury, brominated dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These materials, especially heavy metals, cause damage to ecosystems, build up in food chains, and have direct and indirect effects on human health.
Additionally, failing to recycle e-waste and recover resources and components from them requires new natural resources to be mined to manufacture new components and electronics. This has a further ecological impact through the mining, transportation, and production required to source and extract the metals necessary to develop new devices, which will end back up in the waste stream a few years later.
Other than recycling, another proposed solution to the increase in e-waste is a circular approach to the production and consumption of electronic devices and electrical goods. Designers, manufacturers, investors, traders, miners, raw material producers, consumers, policy-makers, and others have a role in reducing waste, retaining value in the system, and increasing the economic and physical life of an object. Part of this is the ability for a device to be repaired, recycled, and reused.
Further, new devices can be manufactured using more recycled and recyclable components and materials to ensure the device can be used further at the ends of its life. Devices could also be designed to phase out hazardous substances, although this would require the designing and development of new electrical products. However, those components and devices could be designed for greater longevity, coupled with options for reuse, such as repair, resale, refurbish, and remanufacture. By removing the stress from the e-waste recycling stream, it would allow recyclers to properly collect, sort, and recycle devices using responsible practices.
In addition to designing better products that are capable of lasting longer and easier to reuse or recycle, right to repair rules are also required to be in place. Right to repair ensures the device owner is able to repair and reuse the device they have. This could be done by the person or by a repair shop, but it requires the producers of the hardware to enable their devices to be repaired, either in terms of providing repair shops with schematics and access to components or removing copyrights on a product's software, which often forbids consumers by law to tinker or reverse-engineer a device or use an unauthorized repairer.
Being able to reuse products in a closed-loop economic system is also an important step for a circular e-waste cycle. This could include reselling older devices, such as phones, laptops, or tablets, to those for whom owning one of these devices is considered a luxury. This approach could create pathways in the economy where products can be redistributed among the underprivileged and reused, extending the device lifetime. One example could include collecting electronics from cities and redistributing them among schools in underfunded areas where students may otherwise not have access to these devices.
Extended producer responsibility would require component and device producers to be responsible for the management and disposal of devices at the end of their life. This would incentivize producers to view their waste materials as a resource for producing new products. Or, it could be as simple as requiring producers to provide consumers with free and convenient e-waste recycling or could make a producer responsible for the recycling of e-waste by requiring suppliers and sellers of electronics products to pay for the removal, collection, handling, and proper disposal of items (making it free for consumers).
Similar to e-waste recycling, urban mining works to extract raw materials from e-waste. But unlike e-waste recycling, which requires consumers to properly dispose of their electronic devices, urban mining includes firms reclaiming e-waste products sent to landfills or incinerators. Urban mining has been largely considered a concept for recovering materials from e-waste, but it is also commonly used to refer to the recovery of materials from any waste stream, including construction and demolition waste, municipal solid waste, and tire waste. However, urban mining does tend to focus on e-waste because of the overwhelming potential of precious metals that can be recovered at a high rate.
Urban mining offers a chance to further remove e-waste from the waste cycle and have an impact on the environment. Designing devices from a circular economy approach could still do more for reducing or mitigating e-waste. But urban mining still provides some long-term environmental protection and resource conservation. And it is a field with challenges, from sorting through waste streams to find e-waste, or sorting through collections of waste, either at landfills or at recycling facilities, to find e-waste that can be recovered and mined for its component parts.
That said, some studies have found that urban mining of e-waste, among other materials, has become as cost-efficient as traditional mining in China. This has been due, in part, to economic incentives associated with reintroducing new materials. Further studies found that blocks of copper and gold could be recovered from e-waste at similar costs to traditional mining, and similarly, recycling aluminum from end-of-life vehicles is more cost-efficient than extracting aluminum from traditional methods.
It is also estimated that traditional mining alone will not be able to meet the rising demands for rare earth elements necessary for electronics and electrical devices. Urban mining has been suggested as a potential solution, supplementing the traditional raw material streams while also reducing the e-waste left in landfills or otherwise unrecycled. Urban mining also offers a potential solution to reducing disruptions to supply chains, either by using existing waste to remedy a loss of supply of raw materials, or, as in the case of the United States, offering an alternative to exporting waste to other countries.
A more extensive use of urban mining could have further positive environmental effects. Not just would it remove e-waste from landfills and reduce the leaching of harmful chemicals into the environment. It also presents a chance to reduce the need for traditional mining and therefore also reduce the environmental effects of traditional mining. More than just the carbon output of traditional mining, which is quite large given the reliance on fossil fuels to operate mines, but also could reduce further ecosystem destruction which occurs at mining operations (such as strip mines).
Traditional mining also often requires large amounts of water use, which urban mining could further mitigate, reducing the amount of contamination of water supplies, either at a mining operation or at a landfill or recycling site. A more robust adoption of urban mining could further reduce the need for future innovations in mining practices, such as deep-sea mining, which are expected to have further negative side effects on the environment.
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