The generation and accumulation of electronic waste is considered one of the highest priority problems worldwide due to the environmental impact it causes. It has become a habitual fact to see images of beaches and oceans, rivers and mountainous landscapes full of human-generated waste. In this post we tell you the current state of recycling of electrical and electronic waste at an industrial level.

What is E-waste?

E-waste or electronic scrap refers to waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and is defined as all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that its owner has discarded without the intention of reuse (Step Initiative 2014).

E-waste categories

The definition of electronic waste is very large and covers 6 categories in which we find a wide range of products, from almost all household items to commercial devices with circuits, electrical components with power or battery supply. Due to this wide range of possibilities, electrical and electronic waste is classified into the following categories: 

  1. Temperature exchange equipment, such as refrigeration, freezing, air conditioner and heat pump equipment.
  2. Screens and monitors, includes televisions, monitors and laptops.
  3. Lamps, includes fluorescent, high intensity discharge and LED lamps.
  4. Large equipment, such as washers, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric ranges, large printing machines, copying equipment, and photovoltaic panels.
  5. Small equipment, such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric razors, scales, calculators, radio equipment, video cameras, electric and electronic toys, small electric and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments.
  6. Small computer and telecommunications equipment, including mobile phones, global positioning systems (GPS), pocket calculators, personal computers and printers.

Each product of the previous 6 groups has a determined useful life, which means that each category has different amounts of waste, economic values, as well as possible environmental and health impacts, if they aren’t recycled properly. 

How many substances does E-waste make up?

The E-waste solid waste stream is made up of a complex mixture of over 1000 substances. They contain precious metals, including gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium , and also common metals such as iron and aluminum, along with plastics, which can be recycled. EEE also contains rare and rare earths and dangerous metals. Common hazardous materials contain include heavy metals (such as mercury, lead and cadmium) and chemicals (such as CFCs / chlorofluorocarbons or various flame retardants).

For example, only on a mobile phone we can find more than 40 elements of the periodic table as indicated in the photo below. However, according to the Global Monitor, an electronic circuit board can contain up to 60 elements, many of them recoverable.

Photo for non-commercial use of Compound Interest

Current situation of E-waste generation

The amount of electronic waste generated each year according to the report “The Global E-waste Monitor 2017. Quantities, Flows, and Resources” is increasing. Mainly due to the following facts: 

  • The global information society is developing at high speed, characterized by having an increasing number of users and by rapid technological advances that drive innovation, efficiency and social and economic development. In 2017, almost half of the world’s population already used the internet and most people in the world have access to mobile networks.
  • Many people own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device, which replacement cycles are getting shorter and shorter.
  • The incomes and economic capacity of many developing countries are increasing, and with it, the spending of the world’s middle class (growing) on technology which is generating more e-waste.

Current E-Waste recovery processes

There are few companies capable of recycle and reuse the waste they manage. One of the main causes is the large investment they need to adapt or enable facilities to carry out the recycling and extraction of valuable elements from the electronic waste generated to reused them.

Currently, they can be grouped into two blocks: 

  • Pyrometallurgical industries. They employ traditional processes for metal recovery, including incineration, plasma arc furnace smelting, blast furnace and smelting.
  • Hydrometallurgical industries. These types of companies use metal recovery processes that include two stages: chemical leaching (solubilization of WEEE metals with aqueous chemical reagents in leachates) and selective recovery of metals dissolved in leachates.

Advantages of recycling electrical and electronic waste E-waste

The impact of electronic waste on the environment must not only be taken into account, but also the economic component.
The main advantages are: 

  • Economic savings: the total value of all the raw materials present in electronic waste is estimated at approximately 55 billion euros in 2016, which is more than the 2016 Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world. By performing a correct recovery of the E-waste it is possible to obtain benefits for recovered items.
  • Benefit to the environment: the valorization of E-waste allows to avoid that waste end up in the environment without control, generating contamination of the aquifers, beaches and the poisoning of different animals.

How to recycle an E-waste?

Circular economy models should be adopted to motivate better component design, recycling, reuse, etc., while excluding environmental pollution. Therefore, the concept of circular economy offers huge economic and employment opportunities for e-waste management.

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