Electronics are becoming more ubiquitous around the world and a greater source of potential recycled value. In 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the US generated 1.9 million tons of electronics and recycled only 190,000 tons of used e-waste or 10 percent. By 2015, the last year of data available, when the nation produced 3.09 million tons of electronics, the recycling rate had risen to 39.8 percent.
Still, the U.S. generated 42 pounds of e-waste per person in 2016.
e-Scrap, as used electronics are known, contain more valuable metals by weight than raw ore in many cases. By capturing those used phones, computers, printers, and even cables, recyclers can reduce the energy required to make new products by up to 70 percent and reduce the need for mining raw materials. Everyone can help achieve the goal of sustainable electronics production by separating e-waste and sending it to specialized e-waste recycling programs.
Yet not all Americans are aware that e-waste can be recycled. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that only 12 percent of people said that people in their community are recycling e-waste. Business recycling leads the way, with more than 75 percent of recycled e-scrap coming from commercial sources. As computer and phone makers introduce programs to recapture their old products, the pace of recycling will continue to improve.
Yet traditional recycling, which shreds materials and separates the valuable metals with substantial losses in the process, may not be the best answer.
Breakdown, Reuse, Refurbish
Manufacturing companies, such as Apple, have turned instead to taking apart old products to recover whole components for reuse or specialized recycling. After introducing its first iPhone-disassembly robot in 2016, the company has upgraded its process to tear down recycled iPhones with a robot called “Daisy” that can breakdown 200 iPhones an hour.
The most efficient approach for PC and phone makers is refurbishing old products for resale, which extends the use of the materials and makes technology available to people who might not have been able to afford it new. ISRI, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, reports that the electronics and recycling industry is now worth $20.6 billion annually. More than 4.4 million tons of used electronics are processed each year.
Electronics are full of valuable metals, including rare earths that are becoming an issue in the U.S.-China trade war. For instance, gallium, which is a by-product of zinc and aluminum production, is a key component of LEDs, microwave systems, and circuitry. It’s worth about $6,000 per pound (and, like everything else, you can purchase it on Amazon).
A ton of discarded circuit boards contains 40 to 800 times more gold than a ton of gold ore. Think about the Gold Rush of 1849. Why aren’t we rushing doing better?
The United States has historically exported its used electronics, which China now refuses to accept. While other nations have stepped in to receive electronics waste imports, the U.S. should not waste these precious resources.
As the global adoption of electronics continues, the U.S. needs to expand the growing electronics recycling and refurbishing industry so that consumers do not have to pay the freight for shipping e-waste overseas where it will be reused and sold back as new products. The carbon emissions associated with shipping between 10 percent and 40 percent of our e-waste overseas as of 2016 is enormous, and then we ship it back, adding to atmospheric CO2 levels, again.
Keeping more end-of-life electronics in the country will reduce power consumption in manufacturing, CO2 emissions from production and shipping, and lower the cost of domestically produced products. Because of the huge value stored in old electronics, the jobs that can be created to collect and process the gold, silver, zinc, copper, and other metals, as well as glass and plastic are numerous, just waiting for the initiative of innovative recyclers.