One of the greatest challenges facing our society is the recovery of valuable raw materials from electrical and electronic scrap. The global electronic waste business is a business of the future. More and more people are using more and more electronic devices. The number of mobile phones, tablets, hard drives, televisions, and computers is increasing, but the usage times remain low, as manufacturers have to meet the demand for permanent technical developments on the market.
More and more electrical devices end up on landfills and with their valuable raw materials. This is a huge problem for the environment, climate, and health. In 2019, all people worldwide caused over 53 million tons of electronic waste. The raw materials it contains have an estimated value of $57 billion.
What is e-waste made of?
E-waste contains valuable resources that can be reused. Old electrical devices such as broken smartphones, old televisions, and disused washing machines contain bulk metals such as copper and iron, ceramics, glass, plastics, and critical metals. If you want to have more details about critical metals click the following link:
Pollutants such as cadmium, lead or mercury and additives in plastics such as brominated flame retardants and greenhouse gases are problematic. In the event of improper disposal and recycling, these harm the environment and the climate.
What can a meaningful recycling chain look like?
Recycling includes mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes that allow materials to be reused. Current recycling practice essentially consists of three things: pollutants are removed manually, then the materials are mechanically shredded in several stages and then the material is separated from one another.
In addition to harmful substances, a distinction is made between ferrous and non-ferrous metals, plastics, and minerals. Ferrous metals are usually used in steel production while non-ferrous metals are used in the copper process, where certain metals can be further separated from one another.
The problem of e-waste
In addition to incorrect disposal in residual waste and subsequent incineration or landfill, a considerable amount of electronic waste (between 10 and 20 percent) ends up illegally or under the code name of reuse on garbage dumps or wild dumps in Eastern Europe, Asia, or Africa. There they are then often taken apart and burned with bare hands and without health and safety measures to separate the plastics from the valuable metals.
This is devastating for people’s health as well as for the environment and climate. Because in addition to the valuable materials, old electrical appliances also contain highly toxic and environmentally harmful substances. In total, the global mountain of electronic waste contains around 50 tons of mercury and 71,000 tons of brominated flame retardants. In addition, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released.
Limits to recycling
The recycling of old electrical devices has so far been largely limited to mass metals such as iron, steel, copper, aluminum, and precious metals, which are easily recoverable. Rare earths, tantalum, gallium, and indium have global recycling rates of less than one percent, as these occur in small quantities in the devices and are often built-in complex forms, which makes recycling difficult. However, solutions are being eagerly worked on here.
Older generations of electrical appliances contain toxic flame retardants that prevent the high-quality recycling of plastics.
Recycling as product advertising
Companies should indicate how ecological their products are and how high the recycling rate for their devices is. To what extent the material that is used for new products has been recycled and the like. This would be important because customers would shop more consciously and manufacturers would increasingly strive to increase the recycling rate. Changes in legislation are also beneficial.