Is E-Waste Recycling the New Gold Rush?

Do you know where the richest deposits of gold in the world are? Perhaps the Klondike? Or New Guinea?

Answer: Landfills.

There’s no need to follow a treasure map or chase the end of a rainbow if you’re looking for a hoard of gold – just start rummaging through a landfill.

What is e-Waste?

Electronic waste (or e-waste, as it is often referred to) defines products that are no longer wanted or have reached obsolescense in their life cycle. All the old cell phones crowding your junk drawer or other devices you've left on the curbside can be considered e-waste. Many of these products, which end up in landfills, can be reused, refurbished or recycled.   

The need for e-waste recycling is palpable. According to United Nations University (UNU), a global think tank specifically tasked to analyze and resolve the problem, e-waste has become the world’s fastest-growing trash steam. UNU reported that in 2016, the world generated enough e-waste to fill more than a million 18-wheel trucks – enough to stretch from New York to Bangkok and back. Furthermore, experts predict that the 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste generated in 2016 will increase to 52.2 million by 2021.

In 2018, approximately 1.56 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. Sadly, many of these seem destined to end up in landfills; experts estimate that barely 20 percent of the world’s e-waste is collected and delivered to formal recyclers. Most of it is languishing in people’s junk drawers, deteriorating in the environment or exported to countries that engage in unsafe, “backyard burning” methods of disposal.

The biggest problem isn’t necessarily in the number of technologies produced but in the lack of end-of-life solutions. Rather than allowing technological devices to go into dangerous decay, proper e-waste recycling and recovery is key.

But first things first:

What is proper e-waste recycling?

Proper e-waste recycling gets us as close to a circular economy as we can. An effective process will compress the supply chain to decrease risk and costs, while providing full visibility into the final disposition of all materials (especially focus materials) that comply with all laws and regulations worldwide. Throughout this whole operation, electrical and electronic equipment is prepared for maximum reuse or recycling and all other materials are recovered responsibly. Proper e-waste recycling is about diverting materials from landfill and avoiding wasting energy.

There are multiple advantages in e-waste recycling both from environmental and economic standpoints. So, what does a world with proper e-waste look like?

A Healthier and Safer Environment . . . For Everyone

In 2017, the United Nations (UN) Environment Management Group published the “United Nations System-wide Response to Tackling E-waste.” Target 3.9 of the UN’s response seeks to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution” by 2030.

Mismanaged e-waste releases greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. According to NASA, atmospheric carbon dioxide is already at an all-time high, contributing to rising sea levels, extreme meteorological events, ocean acidification and more.

Alongside the precious metal components, many electronics are also built with toxic materials, such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants and other hazardous materials. When the components are dismantled and processed incorrectly, toxins can leak into water, soil and air, impacting the environment and human health.

Ensuring that the e-waste recycling process is executed properly isn’t just beneficial for the environment; it is crucial for human safety, especially for workers directly involved in the disposal process.

That is why it’s crucial for brands to work with recycling facilities that are Responsible Recycling (R2) certified or meet the e-Stewards® Standards for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment©. These facilities take all practical steps to separate materials and components that are not going to be reused or refurbished and direct them to properly equipped materials recovery facilities. Part of their e-waste recycling certifications include not sending materials to incineration, energy recovery or landfills unless no other options are viable. In addition, they ensure the proper management of focus materials both on-site and down the recycling chain.   

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More Efficient Mining of High-Quality Ore

Some experts say that there is 80 times more gold in one ton of cellphones than a gold mine. In fact, the gold in the world’s e-waste alone equals more than a tenth of the gold mined globally each year, according to an article published by the New York Times. A metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency report states. By investing in e-waste mining, countries and companies can protect themselves against volatility in prices and supplies of the global market.

In older technology, proper e-waste recycling may be even more profitable. Routers and other equipment from 25-30 years ago have more gold in them than modern technology. Contracts with agencies like government offices, which tend to hold onto technology for long periods of time, are especially lucrative for this reason.

Copper is also a valuable commodity that can be extracted from electronics. Upwards of 25 million tons of copper are produced annually, and as one of the best conductors of electricity, 65 percent of this ore is applied in the technology sector. It is found in nearly all electrical wiring and is vital to the production of electronic connectors, circuitry wiring and contacts, printed circuit boards, microchips, semiconductors and much more.

Moreover, technology engineers are discovering even more uses for the metal. For instance, the engines of electric vehicles require four times as much copper as internal combustion engines. As eco-friendly driving alternatives become more widely adopted, the need for copper will continue to increase. Given that copper ore grade dropped 25 percent from 2006 to 2016 while total production rose 30 percent, e-waste recycling is a much more environmentally friendly (and effective) method of gathering copper.

Furthermore, some of the materials found in electronics are rare, and some, like cobalt, are located mostly in conflict zones.

There are several methods to separate metals from technologies in a safe and efficient manner. For instance, one method uses nanotube technology to separate the rare-earth elements and another harvests the ore by besieging the electric and electronic equipment with underwater soundwaves.

Not only is e-waste recycling a more efficient method of mining for precious metals, but it is often higher-grade material as well.

The quality of earth-mined ore has been depreciated over the last few years. Copper ore grade, for example, was at 4 percent a hundred years ago; today, it is well under 1 percent and continuing to fall. This decrease in ore grade and an increase in demand and applications means that more digging is required to acquire an adequate amount of ore, which drains natural resources and negatively affects the environment.

Or, you could just take some metal from a recycled electronic and use it for a wide range of applications.

A Circular and Thriving Economy

At the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics, the medals will be trash.

No, literally. Japan – host of the 2020 summer Olympic and Paralympic games – will use the international spotlight to make a statement about the importance and utility of sustainability by crafting 5,000 medals out of precious metals mined from recycled e-waste materials. As of January 2019, municipal authorities had collected roughly 67,180 tons of small electronic devices for this project.

This is just one example of how materials extracted through e-waste recycling can be reintegrated into the economy in a new form, thus maximizing its service life, the tenet of a circular economy.

By implementing the “reduce, recycle, reuse, rethink” model, manufacturers and brands can help usher in the circular economy. But not only will it be more sustainable and environmentally healthy; it will be a stronger, more financially prosperous economy. Overall, creating a sustainable industry and activating the circular economy – a future where technologies are reused and recycled in new ways and for a variety of applications – will stimulate new opportunities for employment, economic activity and trade.

Partnerships for Sustainability

Like any sustainability initiative, this effort cannot be developed, implemented and carried out by individuals, corporations or governments alone; it will require collaboration. Technology companies don’t necessarily need to manufacture fewer products, but they do need to ensure that their devices are designed for optimal sustainability and safe end-of-life. Many technology and electronic manufacturers and retailers are also offering “buy back” programs to encourage consumers to dispose of their technology in a useful and environmentally friendly manner.

Apple, for example, has adopted the tagline “truly innovative products leave their mark on the world instead of the planet” and is offering an incentive for customers to recycle their electronics. Through their Apple Trade In program, consumers can trade in their old electronics to receive an Apple gift card. If the products are still in good shape, they can be resold. If not, they will be sent to Daisy, a robot designed to disassemble 15 different iPhone models to efficiently recover materials.

For their part, consumers need to put their superfluous electronics through the proper channels for disposal. Governments need to make sure that electronic waste management infrastructure exists and ensure corporations and individuals alike are doing their part.

In this new age gold rush, trash becomes treasure and the possibilities are nearly boundless. A material that was once used to watch YouTube videos can crown an Olympian, emblematic not just of athletic prowess, but of hope that the world is awakening to the need for more sustainable solutions. With greater e-waste recycling, we will be preserving the earth’s resources, protecting the environment, delivering better smart home sustainability and creating a safer, more prosperous future for us all.

Jabil Environmental Technologies

Jabil Environmental Technologies provides brands with the confidence, capabilities and vision to transform their electronic sustainability operations.