Written by: Seema Thomas, MUP, MPA
The global desire for electronics continues to grow exponentially. E-waste is now the fastest-growing global trash stream. According to the World Economic Forum, the projected number of electronic devices and equipment could be between 25-50 billion by 2020. On an individual level, each global consumer has at least 7 connected devices, not including the other devices that need an outlet.1Once the electronic device reaches its end-of-life, it’s often discarded, becoming e-waste. The majority of tons of e-waste (some estimates put it at 70%) are discarded in ways not considering recovery, reprocessing, and reuse. To give you a better sense, Global E-Waste Monitor estimates about 40 of the approximately 45 million metric tons of e-waste ends up in the dump. Moreover, these electronics can have toxic additives or other hazardous substances, such as mercury, posing a major health and environmental hazard.
Herein lays the crux of the issue- there is a ‘wasted’ opportunity. Many of these electronic products use critical rare earth materials, which can be polluting to mine and are often not recycled. If we could mine an urban landfill, we could find important sources of secondary raw materials.
Recycling can be an expensive option.
Many of the products are designed or assembled without considering recycling design principles, making recycling of these products even more complicated. It creates challenges to remove some of the highly valued materials. Interestingly, if manual recycling can be carried out, it becomes more economically viable with less material loss. This gets even easier if you can separate collection and recycling streams. Another example is taking “base metals (e.g. gold) in certain devices, such as mobile phones and PCs, which have a relatively high level of concentration and salvage it for other electronics”.
To put this opportunity in perspective, “potential raw material value of $10 billion USD [could] be recovered from e-waste”. From a Triple Bottom Line perspective, this calculation doesn’t even account for the CO2 equivalent emissions saved. Some preliminary research suggests that facilities focused on extracting materials from electronic gadgets may be more profitable than conventional mining. Another major benefit is automation – using robots to identify and separate recyclable parts.
Check out some quick facts about common devices below:
|Personal Computer||Two hundred laptops would yield five troy ounces of gold Some 320 tons of gold and 7,500 tons of silver are used in the global production of personal computers every year|
|Mobile Phone||Phones typically contain as many as 60 elements, including rare metals such as iridium, which is used in touch screen technology|
|Cathode-Ray Tube TV||Typically each one has 450g of copper and 227g of aluminum, as well as approximately 5.6g of gold|
Overall, the combination of increasing e-waste due to urbanization and modernization of those areas in developing and developed countries complemented by increased government regulation to address e-waste management is catalyzing the growth of the e-waste management market. According to Meticulous Research®, the e-waste management market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 1.8% during 2019-2025 to reach $45.78 billion by 2025. This becomes a compelling argument for an economic development opportunity – take one person’s trash to become another person’s treasure. As an example, if 2020 was a year without Covid, the 2020 Olympics in Japan would have had medals comprised of recycled e-waste.
E-waste offers numerous untapped (and potentially profitable) possibilities, especially in the context of greater sustainability. As today (October 14) is International E-Waste Day, let’s focus on promoting the proper disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) throughout the world, ultimately leading to an increase in reuse and recycling rates.
Graphic Sources: FlatIcon.com and 123RF.com
Author: Seema Thomas, MUP, MPA, @SeemaPThomas
Sources: Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities,flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations
University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union
(ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam.