Electronic products are all around us today. In fact if you’re reading this article then you’re looking at one right now. But what happens when these products reach the end of their life, or are made obsolete by newer tech? This is a question with two outcomes, good news and bad news. We would all agree that we absolutely must do something to deal with E-Waste. The bad news is that the results of that process often cause damage we do not see or choose to ignore. The way we deal with our E-Waste must be something we are all made aware of so we really understand the true cost of that new smart phone or TV.
Products like smart phones, IT equipment and home appliances are advancing so rapidly in their capabilities that they become redundant within months of their launch. Many homes and businesses are disposing of old tech products and the question is what can be done with these container loads of E-Waste?
E-Waste contains many valuable materials which can be recovered, such as gold, silver, copper, tin and palladium. The process for recycling electronic goods is similar to other more general recycling processes, following a path of collection, transportation, sorting and separation. Waste is collected and sent to a processing plant where items are manually sorted and disassembled, with parts like batteries removed and sent to specialist facilities.
Items that can’t be dismantled efficiently are shredded into smaller pieces and then spread out on conveyor belts using a shaking process. A high power magnet then sorts out the ferrous metals and further mechanical processes separate the metals from non-metals. A water separation process then divides the remaining plastic and glass materials.
Glass from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) commonly found in televisions and monitors contain more hazardous materials like lead, barium and phosphor. Processing these items is more complex, with extra washing and sorting steps to remove oxides and phosphors and to separate leaded and non-leaded glass.
Smelting is used to recover metals like gold, silver, tin and copper from PCBs and nickel, steel, cadmium and cobalt from batteries.
This is the good news part of the story because it results in a reasonable percentage of resources recovered. The bad news is that the predicted 50 million metric tons of E-Waste produced this year alone will create a big problem despite much of it being capable of being repaired or reused. The majority of it ends up in landfill or is incinerated, E-Waste is often legally and illegally exported to countries like China, India and Nigeria due to absence of more rigorous regulation. Once there, toxic materials like lead, arsenic and mercury leach into the water course, soil and air to become a huge long term problem in the environment affecting plants, animals and humans. The residents of Guiyu in China (an area known for recycling E-Waste) have the highest reported level of lead and dioxin found in people globally.
Out of sight and out of mind is not the way to deal with this problem. There is no easy answer but the majority of us are buyers of electronic products and we need to demand products that are easier to recycle and made with reclaimed material. Only then will product designers, not accountants get to set the design brief for how products should end their life.