When experts from 42 countries took part in the annual International Electronics Recycling Congress (IERC) conference in January, their goal was to study and report on the growing environmental challenges worldwide if the recycling rates for e-waste do not start to increase significantly.
The 480 experts who met in Salzburg, Austria also looked more hopefully toward the future — in particular, at who would benefit the most from the increasing volume of electrical and electronic scrap worldwide. Because as the panel reviewed all aspects of techwaste recycling—from current market developments and new technological trends to new legal frameworks, they noted that the e-scrap market has become very dynamic economically. And moving forward, there may be a strong economy message designed to encourage increased recycling of used and discarded electronics.
But there was a clear sense that the challenge of boosting those recycling rates will only get more problematic if action isn’t taken quickly. At the end of last year, the United Nations published figures noting that the amount of e-waste being created across the globe had reached an annual high of 43 million tons. But only 8 million tons are getting recycled.
The UN also predicted that figure would rise to an estimated 55.2 million tons by 2121.
And recycling remains the most effective way to mitigate the serious environmental risks of allowing e-waste to simply get discarded as normal household trash.
Why is e-waste a growing problem around the world?
The good news is that a clear majority of the world’s nations, or 66 percent, have formal laws that govern the disposal of waste from electrical and electronic equipment. Unfortunately, though, only 41 countries are collating data on recycling, and there’s plenty of work to do to get more nations to coordinate their effects to increase recycling rates.
E-waste is an important environmental and health issue around the world, considering that about 40 million metric tons of electronic waste get produced each year, while only 13 percent of that is recycled, mostly in developing nations, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Because of the toxic chemicals inside e-waste, there are serious concerns about the environmental risks posed by allowing so many of these discarded products to end up in landfills.
In other instances, these products are burned to get rid of them, raising concerns about the emissions from the toxins within them and how they could be damaging human health and the environment. Exposure to toxic metals like lead increases from open-air burning and has been linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency also estimated that an excessive amount of lead in e-waste, if released into the environment, can damage human blood, kidneys, and the peripheral nervous systems.
UNEP also noted that up to 70 percent of e-waste being handled in India is coming from other nations, although UNEP also estimated that computer e-waste will increase five times by 2021, and cell phones 18 times.
Fortunately, there are various solutions being considered. The European Union, for example, is considering requiring manufacturers to eliminate dangerous toxins from the production of electronic devices.
But there’s also an effort to increase awareness of the value of raw materials in electronics.
And the truth is, while the recycling of e-waste is clearly a strong environmental move, there’s also a considerable economic argument as well. Waste electronics are actually worth quite a bit when broken down into their component parts. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union noted that in 2016 alone, the raw materials that make up e-waste had an estimated value of $55 billion, with the majority of that value coming from plastics, gold, and copper.
There is also a discussion of having governments reduce the taxes imposed on companies that manage hazardous
Whichever direction governments pursue, there’s no question that globally, the public’s insatiable appetite for electronics, combined with the fact that they have a shorter and shorter shelf life before the newest version makes them obsolete, means the volume of e-waste will increase on an annual basis.
How is the E-waste Recycling industry responding?
The recent release of a new report, “E-waste Recycling Market 2018 Global Industry Trends and Forecast Analysis to 2021,” noted that this industry is projected to experience growth as well, with an average annual growth rate of 4.86 percent.
But as the IERC noted, the devices that are providing consumers with greater convenience and innovation are presenting recycling companies with a range of difficulties heading into the future. Some of the materials in these devices are easy to remove and can be successfully used to create new products.
On the other hand, other materials may create problems for recyclers. That’s particularly true for the increasingly complex materials that go into these products, from legacy heavy metals to halogenated flame retardants.
And there hasn’t been much research done into how these newest materials behave in the traditional recycling processes, and whether they present new dangers with respect to environmental protection and industrial health and safety. Because newer technologies have led to an increased use for newer materials, that could pose potentially serious health and environmental risks in the future.
It’s also not clear if all recyclers understand which products have additives that may need special handling.
But what everyone agrees on is that e-waste is one of the fastest growing segments in the municipal solid waste stream, and while almost 100 percent of e-waste is recyclable, there is a need to increase recycling rates globally.
It’s been estimated that there are now more mobile phones in existence, based on the number of active SIM cards in use, totaling 7.2 billion. There are less than 7.2 billion people on the planet.
Recycling offers great value. Cell phones contain high amounts of precious metals such as silver and gold, and it’s been estimated that Americans throw away up $60 million worth of silver and gold in e-waste each year.
The IERC is hoping that the message about the economic benefits gets highlighted more frequently, then more solutions could be on the horizon in 2018.
Every contribution to e-waste recycling helps reduce the overall problem. And as world leaders look for solutions that can be embraced across the globe, we all have a role to play in ensuring that our used electronics do not become a potential environmental threat.
Great Lakes Electronics Corporation has years of experience performing environmentally friendly recycling of electronic products, which are disassembled into component parts, so that the ones that still have value can be sold for reuse. Other parts are used for metals recovery, and everything is recycled.