The e-waste crisis is a growing problem with far-reaching environmental and economic impacts, that has been snowballing since the dawn of the computer age. This problem has accumulated something of a critical mass as of today, and as the world races to Net Zero and Zero Waste, eWaste is under more scrutiny than ever, and with good reason.
According to the World Health Organization, E-Waste is the fastest-growing type of solid waste in the world. In 2019, only 17.4% of e waste was documented as formally collected and recycled. Battery waste from all sources (EVs, consumer electronics, others) is estimated to comprise around 15% of all E Waste.
Previously, we’ve talked about how a Circular Economy is a gateway to a realistic and feasible utopia, primarily from the perspective of batteries and the circular supply of energy transition materials that battery recycling can produce. This edition of LOHUM #GreenGazette overviews the larger field of e-waste, why this budding crisis needs attention, and what is the solution. (Spoiler: it’s Recycling.)
Why We Should Care About E-waste
- Resource depletion: The production of electronics consumes vast amounts of virgin or ‘primary’ resources like metals, minerals, and fossil fuels. E-waste represents a significant loss of these precious and finite resources.
- Increased GHG emissions: Manufacturing electronics requires enormous amounts of energy for specialized and composite materials production, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating climate change at an industrial scale.
- Environmental contamination: E waste contains many hazardous and bio-incompatible materials. Improper disposal of e-waste can lead these toxins to leach into soil and water.
- Public health risks: Informal e waste management or processing without adequate safety gear exposes workers to toxic chemicals and dangerous working conditions.
- Economic loss: E-waste represents a lost opportunity or deadweight loss of economic value. Recovering valuable materials from e waste creates jobs and slows down the demand for virgin resource extraction.
Where Does E-Waste Come From?
According to a 2019 report featured on Statista, e-waste primarily comes from small electronic equipment, large electronic equipment, temperature exchange or regulation equipment, screens and monitors, and small IT & telecom equipment encompassing consumer electronics, and lamps. These varieties of e waste may contain metals, glass, plastic, and other composite materials including those found in batteries.
- Small equipment e-waste typically includes vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets, video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, and electronic control instruments.
(At 17.4 Metric Tonnes as of 2019)
- Large equipment e waste typically includes washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, and photovoltaic panels.
(At 13.1 Metric tonnes in 2019)
- Temperature exchange equipment e-waste typically includes items such as refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and heat pumps.
(At 10.8 Metric Tonnes in 2019)
- Screens & monitors e waste typically come from televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks, and tablets.
(At 6.7 Metric Tonnes in 2019)
- Small IT and Telecommunication equipment include e-waste from mobile phones, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, and telephones.
(At 4.7 Metric Tonnes in 2019)
- Lamps are a smaller-scale form of e waste that include fluorescent lamps, high-intensity discharge lamps, and LED lamps.
(At 0.9 Metric Tonnes in 2019)
Minerals Wasted or Depleted Through E-Waste
- Rare earth elements: Used in magnets and motors, these are essential for electronics but face supply chain bottlenecks.
- Tantalum: Used in capacitors, its extraction poses both humanitarian and sustainability challenges.
- Indium: Crucial for LCD screens, its limited supply makes responsible recycling critical.
The Most Polluting Materials in E-Waste
While a definitive percentage-based order of pollutants in e waste is challenging due to varying compositions and methodologies, here’s a general breakdown of common pollutants found in e waste and the hazards they pose:
Pollutants with High Presence in E-Waste:
- Heavy Metals:
- Lead (Pb): Found in batteries, solder, and circuit boards. Can cause neurological damage, developmental issues, and cardiovascular problems.
- Mercury (Hg): Found in fluorescent lamps and switches. Can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and lungs.
- Cadmium (Cd): Used in batteries and circuit boards. Can cause kidney damage, bone problems, and cancer.
- Arsenic (As): Found in some semiconductors and glass panels. Can cause skin cancer, lung damage, and developmental problems.
- Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs): Used to prevent fires. Persistent and bioaccumulative, BFRs are linked to thyroid problems, developmental issues, and cancer.
Pollutants with Moderate Presence In E-Waste
- Plastics: Often consist of harmful additives like phthalates, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and more. These can leach harmful chemicals into the environment and disrupt hormones in humans and animals.
- Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): Previously used in capacitors and transformers. Highly toxic and persistent, can cause cancer, immune system problems, and developmental issues.
- Beryllium (Be): Found in circuit boards. Can cause lung damage and skin problems.
Pollutants with Low Presence In E-Waste
- Radioactive materials: Found in some smoke detectors, some older electronics and gadgets, and military-grade electronics. Can pose radiation risks if not handled properly.
- Other hazardous materials: Various metals, solvents, and acids may be present in small amounts, depending on the specific e waste item.
This is just a broad overview, and the actual makeup of pollutants can vary greatly depending on the type and age of e-waste. It’s always important to handle e waste responsibly and recycle it through accredited channels to minimize environmental and health risks.
The Key Hazards Posed By E-Waste
Both landfilling and burning e waste pose significant environmental and health risks, but in different ways:
Landfilling E-Waste: Pollutant Leaching
Landfills are not sealed environments. Rainwater and other corrosive liquids can seep through e-waste, dissolving and leaching out harmful chemicals like heavy metals, flame retardants, and toxic compounds from plastics. These pollutants can contaminate groundwater and soil, eventually entering the food chain and impacting human health.
Burning E-Waste: Airborne Toxins
- Air Pollution: Burning e-waste releases a cocktail of toxic pollutants into the air, including dioxins, furans, heavy metals, and particulate matter. These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, cancer, and other health issues for people living near burning sites.
- Climate Change: Burning e waste also releases GHG emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and global warming.
- Loss of Resources: Burning e-waste destroys or renders useless valuable materials that could be recovered and recycled, such as precious metals and rare earth elements.
In general, burning e waste is considered significantly more harmful than landfilling due to the immediate release of pollutants into the air. However, both methods are wholly unsustainable, and harmful to the environment and to human health.
What Can Industry & Policymakers Do About E-Waste?
- Sustainable consumption: Buying new electronics only when necessary and choosing durable, long-lasting options.
- Repair and extend lifespan: Getting electronics repaired instead of replacing them, and donating or reselling unwanted devices in good condition, or with refurbishment.
- Proper disposal: Recycling e waste through authorized channels to ensure safe and responsible processing.
- Supporting responsible manufacturers: Choose products from companies committed to sustainable practices and extended producer responsibility.
- Supporting repair & reuse through policy: When critical resources are depleting faster than ever, curbing unethical practices like planned obsolescence and repair-averse technologies becomes critical.
- Advocating for a supportive legislative environment: Supporting policies that incentivize e waste recycling and hold manufacturers accountable for their products’ lifecycle, such as Extended Producer Responsibility.
What Can Individuals Do To Curb E-Waste?
- Properly disposing of e waste through designated channels.
- Extending the lifespan of electronics through repair and maintenance, preventing e waste.
- Choosing durable and repairable electronics over disposable ones.
- Supporting policies that promote responsible e waste management.
E-Waste Is A Loss To Supply & Production
E waste represents a significant net loss to the economy. Recovering valuable materials like copper, gold, and rare earths from e waste would reduce the need for virgin resource extraction or mining, lowering both production costs and environmental impact.
Tackling the e waste crisis requires a multi-pronged approach, just as with tackling the battery waste management crisis. Individual actions, responsible manufacturing practices, and effective policy solutions are all crucial to curbing this growing problem and securing a more sustainable future.
Economic Losses Due To E-Waste:
- Lost Resource Value: Globally, estimates suggest that the global e waste stream contains $62.5 billion worth of recoverable materials annually, which includes metals, including precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum. Landfilling or burning this waste essentially throws away this enormous economic potential.
- Inefficient Material Sourcing: Virgin mining and extraction of raw materials for new electronics have significant environmental and social costs. Recycling e waste reduces the need for virgin materials, lowering production costs and decreasing pressure on natural resources.
- Job Losses: The e-waste recycling industry creates jobs in the collection, processing, and manufacturing of recycled materials. Landfilling and burning e waste miss out on, or undermine, these potential employment opportunities.
- Depleting Rare Earth Elements: E waste is a rich source of rare earth elements, crucial for many high-tech devices. Recovering these elements from e-waste reduces dependence on environmentally damaging mining and ensures their sustainable use.
- Depleting Precious Metals: Precious metals extraction poses environmental and social concerns. Recycling e waste recovers these metals efficiently and ethically, promoting a circular economy for valuable resources.
A single modern smartphone may carry around 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table, including gold, silver, and copper. Studies published by the MDPI estimate that around 50% of e waste globally is illegally dumped or treated in informal recycling facilities. This highlights the need for improved e-waste management infrastructure and responsible recycling practices.
To Conclude: Recycling Is The Solution
The net loss from e-waste to supply and production is a significant economic and environmental concern. By promoting responsible recycling practices and developing efficient e waste management systems, we can unlock the valuable resources hidden within e-waste, reduce environmental impact, and create a more sustainable future for electronics. Recycling e waste through scientific and standardized channels involves dismantling the components, recovering valuable materials, and safely disposing of hazardous materials.
We at LOHUM are tackling the battery waste stream through integrated lithium ion battery recycling, raw material refining, and battery repurposing. Recycling e-waste and battery waste conserves resources, reduces pollution, and creates jobs. As e waste & battery waste recycling technologies reach high levels of efficiency and viability, e-waste can become a valuable source of secondary ecosystem materials for manufacturing new electronics.
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