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What is E-Waste recycling and its importance?

The rapid global rise in technology has generated advanced electrical and electronic equipment with short lifespans. For example, in 2018, Apple sold more than 217 million iPhones. A consequence of such high demand and supply of electronic products is electronic waste (e-waste) which, in 2018 amounted to 50 million tonnes. E-waste is projected to grow annually 3-5% which is three times more than other waste streams. Reports on recycling rates vary, with estimates of around 20–30%. It is estimated that more than 70% of globally produced waste electronics and electrical equipment (WEEE) enter China, Africa and India for reprocessing, much of it illegally, and often using crude, hazardous and inefficient processes. Dumping and incinerating large amounts of WEEE has a severe impact on human life and the environment, as it leads to the release of toxic heavy elements such as lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, beryllium, arsenic and antimony into the air, soil and water cycles.

It is hard to forecast the volume of e-waste that will be generated in the future, but by 2021, the annual total volume is expected to surpass 52 MT, because the number of devices connected to the internet is going to be between 25-50 billion by 2020, which is nearly triple the number of people on the planet today. By 2050, the volume of e-waste in the worst-case scenario could top 120 MT annually. Let us find out what exactly constitutes as e-waste and how to recycle it.

What is E-Waste?

E-waste or e-scraps is short for electronic waste, i.e., trash generated from broken, obsolete, and, surplus electronic devices. Typically, these electronics often contain toxic chemicals and hazardous materials. Therefore, when disposed of improperly, it can cause the release of toxic substances into the environment. E-waste recycling refers to the reprocessing and re-use of these electronic wastes. It is simple.  It is a process that seeks to recover material from electronic waste. This way, you can use them in new electronic products.

What does E-Waste consist of?

  • Home Appliances– Microwaves; Home Entertainment Devices; Electric cookers; Heaters; Fans.
  • Communications and Information Technology Devices– Cell phones; Smartphones; Desktop Computers; Computer Monitors; Laptops; Circuit boards; Hard Drives.
  • Home Entertainment Devices– DVDs; Blu Ray Players; Stereos; Televisions; Video Game Systems; Fax machines; Copiers; Printers.
  • Electronic Utilities– Massage Chairs; Heating Pads; Remote Controls; Television Remotes; Electrical Cords; Lamps; Smart Lights; Night Lights; Treadmills; FitBits; Smart Watches; Heart Monitors; Diabetic Testing Equipment.
  • Office and Medical Equipment– Copiers/Printers; IT Server Racks; IT Servers; Cords and Cables; WiFi Dongles; Dialysis Machines; Imaging Equipment; Phone & PBX systems; Audio & Video Equipment; Network Hardware (i.e. servers, switches, hubs, etc.); Power Strips & Power Supplies; Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPS Systems); Power Distribution Systems (PDU’s); Autoclave; Defibrillator.

How to Recycle E-Waste?

Conserve Energy Future has developed a step-wise process on how to recycle most of the e-waste. Sometimes, the waste has to be treated differently but this process works for most e-waste.

Step 1: Collecting and Transporting

The first step of recycling e-waste and arguably the most important step is collecting it. Most of the e-waste is not recycled purely due to the lack of enough of collection facilities. Nonetheless, recyclers place take-back booths or collection bins in specific places. When these bins get filled, the recyclers then transport the e-wastes to recycling facilities and plants.

Step 2: Shredding and Sorting

After collecting and transporting, the next step is to shred and sort the e-waste. The success of subsequent separation relies on shredding. And this is why efficiency is essential at this stage.

Shredding involves breaking e-waste into smaller pieces for proper sorting. These tiny prices get sorted and then dismantled manually. This is typically labour-intensive as waste items are, at this stage, separated to retrieve different parts.

After this, the materials get categorized into core materials and components. Then, these items get sorted into various categories. Typically, these categories include items that you can re-use as they are and those that require further recycling processes.

E-waste contains components that have historically been valuable in significant quantities when the dismantling costs have been low enough. Some of the applications and quantities extracted for different “important” or valuable elements within electronic devices are represented in Table 1.

Table 1 A sample of valuable elements in electronic wastes.

ElementMain applicationsTotal tons/year [2006]
SilverContacts, switches, solders6000
GoldBonding wire, contacts, integrated circuits300
PalladiumMultilayer capacitors, connectors33
PlatinumHard disk thermocouple, fuel cell13
RutheniumHard disk, plasma displays27
CopperCable, wire connector4,500,000
AntimonyFlame retardant; CRT glass65,000
CobaltRechargeable batteries11,000
BismuthSolders, capacitor900
SeleniumElectro-optic copier, solar cell240
IndiumLCD glass, solder, semiconductor380

In any case, e-wastes are often manually sorted, while compounds such as fluorescent light, batteries, UPS batteries, and toner cartridges should not be crushed or shredded by hand.

Step 3: Dust Extraction

The tiny waste particles get smoothly spread via a shaking process on the conveyor belt. The smoothly spread e-waste pieces then get broken down even further. At this point, the dust gets extracted and discarded in an environmentally compliant manner. This way, there is no environmental degradation.

Step 4: Magnetic Separation

After this, a strong overhead magnet helps you separate steel and iron from other wastes. This way, you have successfully recycled the steel from the waste stream. However, some mechanical processes may sometimes be required to separate circuit board, copper, and aluminium from other wastes particles. And this is especially where they are mostly plastic.

Step 5: Water Separation

After this, water separation tech becomes relevant to separate the glass from the plastic. You can then send leads that contain glass to smelters to use in the production of batteries, x-ray tubes, and new CRTs.

Step 6: Purification of Waste Stream

The next thing is locating and extracting leftover metals from plastics to purify the waste stream further.

Step 7: Preparing Recycled Materials for Sale

The final stage is preparing recycled materials for sale. Here, the materials separated during SSS get prepared for sale as raw materials to produce new electronics.

What are the Benefits of Recycling E-Waste?

1.       It helps in conservation of the natural resources:

The recycling of e-waste saves and conserves natural resources as it helps in recovering valuable raw materials from discarded and worn out electronic products. This way manufacturers can obtain these materials from the e-waste which is recycled. Therefore, there is an urgency of the need to dig out these raw materials reduces further. The impact of e-waste recycling especially to conserve natural resources is huge as these resources are not inexhaustible.

2.       It gives priority to the protection of the environment:

E-waste recycling prioritizes environmental protection as it attempts to ensure the proper handling and managing of the toxic and hazardous waste which contains substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury. In this manner, the danger posed to the environment reduces.

3.       It provides employment:

Employment and hiring of professionals for jobs in e-waste recycling are one of the advantages of e-waste recycling. This in turn develops a market where the recycled raw materials are the main commodity. A total of 757,000 jobs and $6.7 billion tax profits were provided by recycling activities in the US. This would mean that every thousand tons recycled would produce 1.57 jobs and $14,101 in tax profits.

4.       It lowers global warming and protects landfills:

The e-waste which remains uncollected is mostly dumped at landfills and incinerators. The recycling of e-waste prevents this from happening and reduces the large quantities of e-waste piling up.  Approximately 75% of the waste in landfills is biodegradable and so can be broken down into its basic natural elements. When this decomposition takes place, it releases hazardous greenhouse gases, especially methane and carbon dioxide. This leads to an increase in global warming.  E-waste recycling is also incredibly advantageous as it reduces the worsening of these landfills which in turn are also responsible for the pollution of soil and water in the surrounding environment.

The issue with e-waste recycling is mainly the lack of sufficient collection stations and segregation of the waste. With about 20% of e-waste being recycled currently, there needs to be more policies and investment in infrastructure. As shown above, there is a rapid rise in the production of electronic waste and so, countries need to prepare their infrastructure to match the e-waste of the future.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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