Electronic Recycling Grows With Surge in E-Waste

By: Maura Keller

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Staples Sustainable Innovation Lab, and the Consumer Technology Association, recently completed a comprehensive study to create a baseline “material footprint” of consumer technology used in U.S. households from over the last 25 years and how product and consumption trends are influencing the waste flows of this stream.

This study focused on 21 of the most common consumer technologies used during this time, including TVs, phones, computers, monitors, and entertainment devices.

A key finding of the report was that across the household “consumer technology ecosystem,” the number and type of products sold have increased, but the net material consumption has declined to levels not seen since the early 1990s. Most of this material reduction is due to phasing out heavy products like cathode ray tube TVs and substitution with lightweight flat panel displays. In addition, many products are being designed with lighter materials, like aluminum instead of plastic or steel.

As Brad Swenson, vice president of Device Pitstop explained, e-waste is the fastest growing waste product in the world. Electronics – specifically computers and mobile devices – contain toxic substances that may include lead, chromium, beryllium, and cadmium. “Unfortunately, there has been little progress in eliminating these toxins in electronics,” Swenson said. “So for now, the best solution is increased use of efficient green computing, reuse and responsible end of life recycling.”

“Recently, electronics recycling has changed drastically and will have to continue to evolve, because technology will not slow down,” said Jarrett Lettow, chief operating officer of Universal Waste Disposal. “Think of the old world of e-recycling in terms of transportation over the last 100 years. It started out as clunky, slow and painful to move. For those of us in recycling it’s been the seemingly overnight transition from desktop computers and tube TVs to an explosion of smartphones and tablets. Computers and box televisions have been inefficiently mined by the ‘recycling’ industry for years, and the net effect has resulted in us cannibalizing ourselves.

According to the report by RIT, when considering specific materials, a key finding was that major materials of concern used historically to enable consumer technology products, like lead and mercury, have declined in parallel with product substitution due to technological progress.

However, as the report indicates, there are new opportunities for study and innovation in the area of electronics recycling. For example, increased demand for mobile products resulted in greater use and disposal of lithium-ion batteries, and there is a clear opportunity to proactively develop recycling systems to target these emerging waste streams.

The waste flows show similar material breakdown over time, although CRT glass (containing lead) continues to flow out of U.S. households as consumers slowly get rid of legacy televisions. These results also show initial declines in bulk material waste flows, including plastic and ferrous metal (steel) as well as stabilization and slight decline in printed circuit boards (PCBs) which contain precious metals targeted by current recycling systems. Many of the changes observed in these figures demonstrate the effect of technological progress and consumer demand, particularly in the demand for widescreen but lightweight TV display technology.

One major change that electronic recyclers are facing is the increasing use of plastic over metal in electronic items. “Plastic is hard to separate during the recycling process because there are so many different polymers,” said Gary Diamond, chief executive officer, Shift Recycling.

As Diamond explained, there are two major barriers to the reuse or recycling of plastic in e-waste, namely the mixed plastic content and the presence of flame retardants. “A new study by the Illinois Sustainability Technology Center published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering suggests a way to deal with the first problem: mixed plastic polymers are dissolved in a solvent, which is then evaporated to leave the polymers behind,” Diamond said.

Steps Being Taken
Diamond said that as a result of continuing technological advances, electronic recyclers are currently in a challenging position. It is difficult for them to determine what the waste stream will look like (and thus determine its particular recycling requirements) even a year or two from now, let alone a longer period of time.

“There are some really interesting metals in electronics such as the rare earths but the traditional recycling chain has not figured out how to extract them all yet,” said Diamond. “Plus, the traditional recycling chain deals with standard mixtures such as copper and gold, for example, but now we’re seeing mixtures with 20 or maybe 50 different metals. Electronics recycling is becoming all about how to separate out those metals.”

According to Swenson, there are a few key steps being taken within the recycling industry that are offsetting the inherent recyclability issues facing the electronics industry.

  • Modern green computing – Consumers and businesses alike are increasingly using large amounts of cloud-computing for both storage and processing. Online gaming, office suite applications and online picture storage are all examples of the growing use of cloud computing.

  • “Re-use” – computer manufacturers and software developers together are delivering computers that have a longer useful life. “In recent years, new operating systems are able to leverage hardware that is several generations older,” Swenson said. “Additionally, many computer users are relying more on cloud-hosted applications and storage which decreases the need for fast processors and large storage disks.”
  • Recycling – Unfortunately, the vast majority of computers end up in landfills. “We need to do a better job in educating the public about the dangers of e-waste and how to properly dispose of it,” Swenson said. There is a growing list of public and private businesses – including electronics retailers – who serve as drop off, or collector sites, and others who actually perform part or all the proper recycling processes.

“We have to change our recycling paradigm,” Lettow said. “It must move from the world of scrap everything and pull out whatever minute valuables possible, to a system of valuable reuse. This begins ultimately with the OEMs—Apple, Samsung, Sony, etc. They have to bear some of the weight of recycling by moving beyond labeling themselves as green and actually engineering products with the thought of how their products will ultimately transition. We should hold them accountable.”

Lettow added that it is incumbent upon players in the recycling industry to take these products and remanufacture, or reuse them at every corner without the thought of scraping something until all creative opportunity has been exhausted.

“We as an industry must become more creative, and leverage technology as a kind of an ally to recreate itself,” Lettow said.

Swenson said that while there is no easy solution to decrease e-waste, the further perpetuation of green computing, extending the life of devices via reuse and finally educating the public about why and how to properly dispose of electronics will help our planet.

Diamond said the bright side for electronics recycling is that there are more electronics being produced than ever. So, while each item may be less valuable to recycle, the overall volume of items makes up for the lowered value of each piece. In fact, he suggests that governments that fund recycling switch the focus from reimbursing by weight of recovered materials to reimbursing per electronic item recycled.

“We’re becoming more efficient at recycling electronics and increasing commodity yield through technological advancements,” says Diamond. “But who knows what the future holds? Could T-shirts become electronic items? Refrigerators will, for sure. Will your cell phone be replaced by a contact lens in your eye? We just can’t predict what direction electronics are going in." 

*This content was generated by http://americanrecycler.com. To read the original article or for more information go to https://americanrecycler.com/8568759/index.php/news/electronics-recycling/3097-electronic-recycling-grows-with-surge-in-e-waste

help desk software