Introduction to Electronics (E-waste) Recycling

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Electronics waste, commonly known as e-scrap and e-waste, is the trash we generate from surplus, broken and obsolete electronic devices. E-waste or electronics recycling is the process of recovering material from old devices to use in new products.

Frequently replaced electronics

We are creating e-waste at a rapid rate. With such a very short useful life, these electronics transition into e-waste at a rapid pace. In fact, it was estimated that there were 422 million unused and unwanted cell phones accumulating in people's homes by the end of 2015.

Globally, a cell phone is sold to around one of every four people on an annual basis. Every year millions of electronic devices such as mobile phones, TVs, computers, laptops, and tablets reach the end of their useful life.

What happens to devices at the end of their useful life?

Unfortunately, the majority of these electronic products end up in landfills and just a tiny percentage comes back as/in new electronic devices. According to a UN study, in 2014 alone, 41.8 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) was discarded worldwide, with only 10 to 40 percent of disposal done properly.

Electronics are full of valuable materials including copper, tin, iron, aluminum, fossil fuels, titanium, gold, and silver. Many of the materials used in making these electronic devices can be recovered, reused and recycled, including plastics, metals, and glass.  In a report, Apple revealed that it recovered 2,204 pounds of gold —worth $40 million—from recycled iPhones, Macs and iPads in 2015.  

Some more E-waste recycling facts

  1. In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, the equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel Towers.
  2. Only 41 countries have official e-waste statistics.  In countries where there is no national e-waste legislation in place, e-waste is probably categorized as other or general waste.
  3. Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of world population covered by e-waste legislation jumped from 44% to 66%.
  4. As of 2016, about 95% of Americans own a cell phone. The average U.S. cell phone life cycle is 21.6 months.
  1. Every year, Americans throw away around 9.4 million tons of e-waste, an amount which is more than any other country in the world.
  2. Currently, e-waste constitutes 2 percent of the municipal waste stream in the U.S. E-waste is currently the fastest growing portion of municipal solid waste in the U.S., increasing by 5 percent annually.
  3. Every year, between 20 and 50 million tons of e-wastes are tossed into landfills, and just 10 to 18 percent of total worldwide e-waste generation is recycled. But according to EPA, current E-waste recycling rate is just 12.5 percent.
  1. Every year, Americans throw away cell phones containing over $60 million in silver and gold.
  2. Much of the e-waste generated in the U.S. is exported to China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana creating a dumping problem in those countries.

Benefits of E-waste recycling

Recycling e-waste has various environmental and economic benefits:

  1. According to EPA, recycling one million laptops can save the energy equivalent of electricity that can run 3,657 U.S. households for a year. EPA also states that by recycling one million cell phones, we can recover 75 lbs of gold, 772 lbs of silver, and 35,274 lbs of copper and 33 lbs of palladium.
  2. According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, it takes 1.5 tons of water, 530 lbs of fossil fuel and 40 Ibs of chemicals to manufacture a single computer and monitor.
  3. 81 percent of energy associated with a computer is used during production and not during operation.
  1. Electronics contains various toxic and hazardous chemicals and materials that are released into the environment if we do not dispose of them properly.

Recycling e-waste enables us to recover various valuable metals and other materials from electronics, saving natural resources (energy), reducing pollution, conserving landfill space, and creating jobs.  

The electronics recycling process

Electronics recycling can be challenging because discarded electronics devices are sophisticated devices manufactured from varying proportions of glass, metals, and plastics. The process of recycling can vary, depending upon materials being recycled and the technologies employed, but here is a general overview.

Collection and Transportation: Collection and transportation are two of the initial stages of the recycling process, including for e-waste. Recyclers place collection bins or electronics take-back booths in specific locations and transport the collected e-waste from these sites to recycling plants and facilities.

Shredding, Sorting, and Separation: After collection and transportation to recycling facilities, materials in the e-waste stream must be processed and separated into clean commodities that can be used to make new products. Efficient separation of materials is the foundation of electronics recycling. Initial shredding of e-waste stream facilitates sorting and separation of plastics from metals and internal circuitry. So, e-waste items are shredded into pieces as small as 100mm to prepare for further sorting.

A powerful overhead magnet separates iron and steel from the waste stream on the conveyor. The separated steel materials are then prepared for sale as recycled steel. Further mechanical processing separates aluminum, copper and circuit boards from the material stream which now is mostly plastic. Then, a water separation technology is used to separate glass from plastics. Visual inspection and hand sorting improve the quality of extracted materials. The separated streams of aluminum, copper and circuit boards are collected and prepared for sale as recycled commodity materials.

Advanced separation technologies are used in the process. The final step in the separation process locates and extracts any remaining metal remnants from the plastics to further purify the stream. 

Preparation For Sale as Recycled Materials: After the shredding, sorting and separation stages have been executed, the separated materials are prepared for sale as usable raw materials for the production of new electronics or other products.

Electronics Recycling Associations

ISRI (the Institute of Recycling Industries): ISRI is the largest recycling industry association with 1600 member companies, of which 350 companies are e-waste recyclers.

CAER (Coalition for American Electronics Recycling): CAER is another leading e-waste recycling industry association in the U.S. with over 130 member companies operating around 300 e-waste recycling facilities altogether throughout the country.

EERA (European Electronics Recyclers Association): EERA is the leading e-waste recycling industry association in Europe.

EPRA (Electronic Products Recycling Association): EPRA is the leading e-waste recycling industry association in Canada.  

Key Current Challenges for Electronics Recycling Industry

The E-waste recycling industry has a significant number of challenges. This includes:

Exports to developing nations  Exporting e-waste, including hazardous and toxic materials, is leading to serious health hazards for the workers working for dismantling electronic devices in countries without adequate environmental controls. Currently, 50-80 percent of e-waste that recyclers collect is exported overseas, including illegally exported e-scrap, which is of particular concern. Overall, the inadequate management of electronics recycling in developing countries has led to various health and environmental problems.

Less valuable materials  Although the volume of e-waste is increasing rapidly, the quality of e-waste is decreasing. Devices are getting smaller and smaller containing less precious metal. The material values of many end-of-life electronic and electrical devices have therefore fallen sharply. 

Electronics recyclers have also suffered due to sagging global prices of recycled commodities, which have decreased margins and resulted in business closures.

Electronics are not designed for recycling and reuse  Many products continue to be designed in ways that they are not easily recyclable, repairable or reusable. Such design is often undertaken for proprietary reasons, to the detriment of overall environmental goals. In this regard, organizations such as ISRI have been active in promoting policies to broaden the range of authorized companies allowed to repair and refurbish smartphones to avoid their needless destruction. 

Most E-waste still goes To landfills The current rate or level of e-waste recycling is definitely not sufficient. The current recycling rate of 15-18 percent has much room for improvement as most e-waste still is relegated to the landfill.

Electronics Recycling Laws

More and more electronic waste laws have been passed. Currently, 25 U.S. states have laws mandating statewide e-waste recycling. Several more states are working toward passing new legislation and improving the existing policy. Currently, 65 percent of the U.S. population is covered by state e-waste recycling laws. In several states including California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Indiana, e-waste is banned from landfills. Check out this Brief Comparison of State Laws on Electronics Recycling to better understand e-waste recycling laws in the U.S.