Introduction to Electronics (E-Waste) Recycling
Electronics waste, commonly known as e-scrap or e-waste, is the trash we generate from surplus, broken, and obsolete electronic devices. Electronics contains various toxic and hazardous chemicals and materials that are released into the environment if we do not dispose of them properly. E-waste or electronics recycling is the process of recovering material from old devices to use in new products.
Frequently Replaced Electronics
With such a very short useful life, electronics transition into e-waste at a rapid pace. In fact, it was estimated that close to 500 million unused cell phones are accumulating in people's homes. Globally, a cell phone is sold to around 25% of the population annually, and 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 12.5% of e-waste is recycled. According to a UN study, over 41.8 million tons of e-waste was discarded worldwide, with only 10%–40% percent of disposals appropriately done. 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.
Benefits of E-Waste Recycling
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. According to the EPA, recycling one million laptops can save the energy equivalent of electricity that can run 3,657 U.S. households for a year. Recycling one million cell phones can also recover 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 35,274 pounds of copper, and 33 pounds of palladium.
On the other end, e-waste recycling helps cut down on production waste. According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, it takes 1.5 tons of water, 530 lbs of fossil fuel, and 40 pounds of chemicals to manufacture a single computer and monitor. 81% of the energy associated with a computer is used during production and not during operation.
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 on the 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. Shredding the e-waste facilitates the sorting and separation of plastics from metals and internal circuitry, and 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 and then prepares it for sale as recycled steel. Further mechanical processing separates aluminum, copper, and circuit boards from the material stream—which now is mostly plastic. Water separation technology is then used to separate glass from plastics. The final step in the separation process locates and extracts any remaining metal remnants from the plastics to purify the stream further.
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.
Current Challenges for Electronics Recycling Industry
The E-waste recycling industry has a significant number of challenges, which the primary one being exporting 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% 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.
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 suffered due to sagging global prices of recycled commodities, which have decreased margins and resulted in business closures.
Another problem is that as time goes on, many products are being made in ways that make them not easily recyclable, repairable, or reusable. Such design is often undertaken for proprietary reasons, to the detriment of overall environmental goals. 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. The current rate or level of e-waste recycling is definitely not sufficient. The current recycling rate of 15%–18% has much room for improvement as most e-waste still is relegated to the landfill.
Electronics Recycling Laws
Currently, 25 U.S. states have laws mandating statewide e-waste recycling, and several more states are working toward passing new legislation and improving the existing policy. State e-waste recycling laws cover 65% of the U.S. population, and some 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.