When we get a new phone as a gift or we get excited about any offer in the store for the latest laptop, we do not think about what happens to the old electronics we need to get rid of when the new ones enter our home. In the article below, I will go through the story of e-waste, so that you can understand the impact electronic devices have on the environment and human health.
It is the year 2021 and the population of the earth has already passed the critical threshold of 7,5 billion people. This means consumption has exploded in recent decades, especially in industrialized and developed areas.
Consumption represents, for many, comfort and a better life, but for the planet, it means limited resources. Many reports from international institutions show that we are at a critical time, where if we fail to change the way we consume, in order to become sustainable in the long term, we can face severe situations.
We need to recycle! Let us restore the production circuit and the consumption of materials that have value: Paper, plastic, but also computers, refrigerators, or washing machines from which metals such as iron, aluminum, copper, or other rare and precious metals can be recovered.
What does e-waste mean?
E-waste is the abbreviation from electronic waste, which means discarded electrical and electronic devices. These include mobile phones, TVs, computers, laptops, CDs, DVDs, USBs, consoles, video games, battery devices, hard drives, board circuits, monitors, air conditioners, electric cookies, fans, microwaves, etc.
Why should electrical and electronic waste be collected?
E-waste accounts for 5-6% of a community’s total waste. Just as household waste is not kept in the house, old or damaged electrical equipment must not be stored in the household or disposed of at random. It must be collected and properly recycled for environmental protection reasons, because of its toxic potential and to protect the natural resources of the earth.
Firstly, these pieces of equipment may have elements harmful to the environment and to the health of the population. Heavy metals or dangerous gases, elements that, if released into the air, water, or soil have long-term harmful effects on our food, the water we drink, or the air we breathe.
The majority of these items are also made with the use of materials that can be recovered and re-introduced in industry, as secondary raw materials, in order to prevent irrational exploitation of primary resources. Of course, this happens only through a high degree of recovery, achieved with high-performance recycling technologies.
Old electrical and electronic appliances pollute more than household waste
Did you know that old electronics and appliances have harmful effects ten times higher than household waste? Or did you know that 75% of the components of these appliances are recyclable? Parts of these appliances can be used in the manufacture of other electronics and appliances, so they must not be simply disposed of in the garbage. Globally, these small appliances, such as phones, TVs, or batteries, represent most of the waste of global amount. In 2019, 17,4 million tons of old electrical appliances were discarded without recycling.
The idea is simple: When you have an old phone or TV you want to get rid of, you will notice on their packaging that there is a sign showing a wheeled bin cut with an “X”. This sign indicates that these pieces of electronic and household waste should not be disposed of right into the garbage or in nature – they should be collected separately for recycling instead.
Old electronics and household recycling
Before you request the services of a collection and recycling center, you must make sure that the electrical appliances or electronics you are about to remove from your home still have the engine. You can then contact a recycling company to get rid of your waste quickly. At the same time, you will get a small amount of money in exchange for the old appliances. Thus, you do not only help the environment but also manage to get some money (if you are to hand over a considerable number of old appliances).
Any electrical, electronic, or household appliance, portable and industrial batteries (non-automotive), lamps, or fluorescent tubes, all of these are in the E-waste category and must be recycled. In short, almost everything that is plugged in or running on batteries must be collected and recycled.
What happens to electrical waste after it is collected?
After electrical waste is collected, it is safely loaded and transported by the treatment and recycling operators.
E-waste recycling involves initial sorting on typology like refrigerating appliances, CRT equipment, large household appliances, IT, etc.
The processing includes several physical activities like dismantling/cutting, removal of harmful substances in E-waste by certain methods, resulting in components such as cables, motors, printed circuit boards, and materials like glass, plastic, metal, etc. All these will subsequently be subjected, depending on the case, to further treatment, clean recovery, recycling, and/or neutralization disposal.
The first step is to extract components of high danger or requiring careful treatment in the following flows: liquids, refrigerants, batteries, electronic boards, cables, asbestos, etc.
The E-waste that has been de-polluted is to undergo a process of automatic or manual dismantling, at the end of which homogeneous compounds are identified, which form the basis for future secondary raw materials, or which require energy recovery or controlled disposal operations.
Special attention will be paid to refrigeration equipment containing ozone-depleting elements and to cathode-ray tube equipment containing a fine powder with toxic elements inside.
Finally, after the neutralization of hazardous substances for the purpose of clean disposal, secondary raw materials result from carefully organized technological processes, for e.g., production of goods, being prepared for re-entry into the economic cycle.
What inputs are recovered from E-waste?
As a result of E-waste recycling, secondary inputs of economic value are recovered: iron, aluminum, copper, plastic, and glass.
High-value compounds such as gold, silver, platinum, and rare metals – antimony, beryllium, indium, gallium, etc. are found in the electronic board.
There are also elements that after treatment, won’t be considered “recyclable”, but they have energy value and can co-incinerate in thermal power plants or the cement industry: wood, plastic, rubber, etc.
E-waste in numbers
- Every year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated worldwide, of which only 12,5% are recycled. 71% of US-produced e-waste in 2012 ended up in landfills or incinerators.
- 41,8 million tons of e-waste were transported by ship to developing countries in 2014.
- 7,2 billion mobile phones are used all over the world and 350.000 mobile phones are thrown away every day.
- The value of gold and copper that could be recovered from mobile phones thrown away in the United States every year is $60 million.
You might also like our article about garbage bag recycling.
How often do we throw away electronic devices?
We get bored of our phones most often and change them about every 18 months. We throw them away every two years; we use printers for about five years and TVs for 10.
Where does e-waste go?
The E-waste created by the United States reaches developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and China.
Agbogbloshie, a former suburb in Accra, Ghana, has become a waste dump for electronic waste where traders in Europe, the US, China, and India illegally send tons of old electronics. Ghana imported around 215.000 tons of e-waste in 2016 and generated 129.000 tons, and forecasts indicate that these figures doubled in 2020. 250.000 people living in the surroundings are putting their health at risk because of the high level of lead in the soil. Everyone, including 7-year-olds, is involved in the dismantling of electronics.
Why should I donate and recycle E-waste?
For two very important reasons:
- E-waste contains substances hazardous to the environment and health such as greenhouse gases or heavy metals harmful to your health.
- Recovery of significant amounts of secondary inputs; E-waste has a high degree of recycling-re-use, somewhere between 85-90%.
Solutions. How to reduce e-waste?
- Follow the instructions in the electronic device’s instruction book to extend its life.
- Take broken electronics to a reliable repair shop rather than throwing them away.
- Take advantage of the store programs where you trade in an old product for a discount on a new one.
- Donate the electronics you no longer need.
Up to 90% of the components of electrical and electronic waste can be recovered through collection and recycling. E-waste contains elements whose recovery saves us from needlessly using resources to extract or produce others through environmentally harmful processes.
The carbon footprint of metals and plastics, gained through recycling, is much smaller than that of producing them from original sources.
An iron strip contains enough metal so that 13 cans can be produced just by recycling it! And from a toaster 25 cans can be produced!
Aluminum recycling requires 95% less energy or resources compared to what you need to produce aluminum from scratch.
Almost 99% of PC components can be recycled!
Manufacturing a PC desktop requires approx. 240 kg fossil fuels, 22 kg chemicals, and 1,5 tons of water.
Recovery of essential inputs such as cobalt or graphite is very important. They can be reused in the production of innovative technology products and prototypes.
Cobalt and graphite obtained from battery recycling, for example, can be reintegrated into the industry for the production of new batteries, metal objects, or mobile phones.
The materials recovered through recycling are also vital for the creation of environmentally-friendly appliances, such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, or energy-saving lamps. This is a new way in which recycling helps us combat global warming.
Long-term secondary effects of contact with e-waste
- Constant headache
- Breathing problems
- Blood cough
- Eye problems
- Lung diseases
- Burns and injuries
- Visual damage
- Chronic nausea
- Respiratory problems
- Heavy headache
The most polluted places in the world
- Agbogbloshie, Ghana
- Chernobyl, Ukraine
- River Citarum, Indonesia
- Dzerzhinsk, Russia
- Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
- Kabwe, Zambia
- Kalimantan, Indonesia
- The Matanzas River, Argentina
- The Niger River Delta, Nigeria
- Norilsk, Russia
To keep it simple, by recycling we give the planet a break. Instead of using the resources that are still available, we consume parts of what has already been used. This translates into less waste, newly created jobs, more responsible people, and a future with clearer skies for our children.
It is important to note that recycling has a very important role in environmental protection, taking into account the fact that this process is used to recover substances that, once they have reached the environment, affect the ozone layer, global warming, human health, flora, and fauna.