Definition of e-waste
Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. Office electronic equipment, discarded computers, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators are all examples of e-waste. This definition also includes used electronics for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal.
Recycling of waste
The multi-million dollar electronic waste recycling business is found in all parts of the developing world and is a rapidly consolidating business. Part of this evolution has involved a greater diversion of electronic waste where equipment once recycled is reverted to a raw material form.
This diversion is achieved through reuse and refurbishing. The environmental and social benefits of reuse include a far lesser demand for new products and virgin raw materials, larger quantities of pure water and electricity for manufacturing, less packaging, diminished use of landfills and availability of technology to wider sections of society due to greater affordability of products.
Audiovisual components such as televisions, VCRs, stereo equipment, mobile phones, other handheld devices, and computer components contain valuable elements and substances suitable for reclamation, including lead, copper, and gold.
One major challenge is recycling printed circuit boards from electronic waste. The circuit boards contain precious metals as gold, silver, platinum, etc. and base metals such as copper, iron, aluminum, etc. The conventional method of mechanical shredding and separation is employed but the recycling efficiency is low. Alternative methods are being tried and tested to see how these circuit boards can be recycled in the best possible manner.
In developed countries, electronic waste processing usually first involves dismantling the equipment into various parts (metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, plastics), often by hand, but increasingly by automated shredding equipment. A typical example is the NADIN electronic waste processing plant in Novi Iskar, Bulgaria. The advantages of this process are the human’s ability to recognize and save working and repairable parts, including chips, transistors, RAM, etc. The disadvantage is that even though labour is cheap, these factories have the lowest health and safety standards implemented.
Another alternative bulk system used for the dismantling of equipment and shredding is the ‘Hopper’. This is an unsophisticated mechanical separator, that uses screening and granulating machines to separate metal and plastics, which are then sold to smelters or plastics recyclers. This kind of recycling machinery is enclosed and employs a dust collection system. Some of the emissions are caught by scrubbers and screens. Magnets, eddy currents, and trommel screens are employed to separate glass, plastic, and ferrous and nonferrous metals, which can then be further separated at a smelter.
Leaded glass from CRTs is reused in car batteries, ammunition, and lead wheel weights. Copper, gold, palladium, silver and tin are valuable metals sold to smelters for recycling. Hazardous smoke and gases are captured, contained and treated to mitigate environmental threat. These methods enables the safe reclamation of all valuable computer construction materials.
An ideal electronic waste recycling plant combines dismantling for component recovery with increased cost-effective processing of bulk electronic waste. Reuse is an alternative option to recycling because it extends the lifespan of a device. Devices still need eventual recycling, but by allowing others to purchase used electronics, recycling can be postponed and value gained from device use.
Benefits of recycling
Recycling of raw materials from electronics that are to be scrapped is the most effective solution to the growing e-waste problem. Most electronic devices contain a variety of materials, including metals that can be recovered for future uses. By dismantling and providing reuse possibilities, intact natural resources are conserved and air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is avoided. Additionally, recycling reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new products. It simply makes good sense and is efficient to recycle and to do our part to keep the environment green.
Problems with recycling
Rapid changes in technology, changes in media (tapes, software, MP3), falling prices, and planned phasing out of electrical equipment have all resulted in a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.
Display units (CRT, LCD, LED monitors), Processors (CPU chips, RAM), and audio components have different useful lives. Processors are most frequently out-dated (by software) and are more likely to become “e-waste”, while display units are most often replaced without making any repair attempts, due to the demand for new display technology.
It is estimated that 50 million tons of E-waste is produced each year. The United States alone, discards about 30 million computers each year and 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators.
According to a report by UNEP the amount of e-waste being produced – including mobile phones and computers – could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries, such as India. The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year. China already produces about 2.3 million tons, second only to the United States. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.
Electrical waste contains hazardous but also valuable and scarce materials. Up to 60 elements can be found in complex electronics. In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.
While there is agreement that the number of discarded electronic devices is increasing, there is considerable disagreement about the relative risk and strong disagreement whether curtailing trade in used electronics will improve conditions, or make them worse.
Find out about the NADIN electronic waste processing plant.
Who is a smelter?
What is a landfill?
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