Guest blog: The Environmental & Economic Effect Of Recycling E-Waste

25th October 2018

In this guest blog Stewart McGrenary from Plunc, a UK online recycler for high end electronics takes a look at the environmental and economic impacts of electronics waste.

There is increasing dialogue about what must be done to solve the e-waste problem. Electronics manufacturers, recycling companies and legislative bodies all have their share of ideas.

However, one greatly overlooked area is the global thirst for more and more technologically advanced devices. Individuals and small offices crave them. This is the reason manufacturers stay in business. But it is the very same reason our landfills are becoming behemoths of toxic waste.

Experts believe that it is these two mostly overlooked areas where the largest positive impact to the problem can be made.

In this article, we will give an overview of the problem, how individuals and small offices are unwittingly contributing to the e-waste recycling problem, and finally, offer our observations about what these two groups can do to help the situation, and the impact from both an environmental and economic standpoint.

Overview Of The Problem

The most obvious part of the problem is that tonnes of electronic devices, especially smartphones, are amassing into large heaps of toxic threats to the environment.

From the vantage point of the recycling industry, there are two unique problems:

Slimmer devices are harder and dangerous to disassemble, and therefore harder to recycle.

For one thing, batteries are secured inside the device by massive amounts of glue. There are only two choices for extracting the battery, which most often is lithium.

One, heat could be used to soften the adhesive. But it can also put the battery at risk of exploding, endangering personnel and property.

Two, the disassembler can try to carefully pry the battery out of the device. In the case of a lithium battery, a thin membrane separates the positive side from the negative side. Prying the battery could compress it too much, breaching the battery’s membrane, causing the two sides to connect. This can start a fire or explode.

To sum it up, disassembling these slimmer devices is not only harder than ever; it can be alarmingly dangerous.

Slimmer devices yield smaller amounts of recyclable materials; the cost to recover them most often exceeds the value of the material.

It costs more to recycle these devices than you may imagine. Tools need power, recyclers earn an hourly wage, and other resources may be used. Before they disassemble the device, they test it, extract reusable parts, and discard the rest.

Some devices take longer to disassemble than others. With the slimmer devices, all of this effort and expense to recover some minute amounts of recyclable material makes it seem futile. Many recycling companies refuse these devices because it costs more to extract the material than its actual value.

For that reason, people do not even bother trying to recycle them, so they end up where the biggest concern is – the landfills.

The quest for going back to more upgradable devices is also attached to the recycling problem. Consider the computer chip. The same time, money and resources that go into recycling devices also goes into manufacturing them. They are usually melted down and remanufactured – a waste to many experts. They believe that reusing the chips instead would be a more cost-effective piece of the puzzle. This would keep them out of the landfills as well.

From the vantage point of legislators, the overly-parroted phrase “How do we pay for it?” is their biggest concern. They are also looking at the impact that such legislation can have on their constituents and party members. After all, this massive issue is miles away from global consensus.

Now that we have seen the scope of the problem, let us look now at what more can be done by individuals and small offices.

The Role of the Individuals

On the surface, this might seem to be another do-gooder effort to simply encourage more people to recycle their devices. Frankly, if simple reminders were the answer, we would not have a problem.

However, we are going a bit deeper than this. Whether it is your personal laptop or the smartphones used in the office of your company, we all have to ask ourselves a simple question: “Why do I need a slim device?” or “Do I need a new device or is a hardware upgrade enough”. In other words, are features you are getting next, mere novelties or are they real needs?

Now, let us take this idea a step further. Taking into account the fact that most of these devices are taking up space in the landfills, do you feel that it is worth having these extra features from a device that could potentially poison the air you breathe, the water you use and the land you stand on?

We would like to make it clear that this is not about banning smartphones, or slim devices for that matter. This is about a level of awareness that has not been sufficiently employed. If we think about the environment, we are actually thinking about everyone.

Observations

This article was written, not as an excuse to frivolously point the finger in an obscure direction, but rather, to examine the problem from all directions. The truth is that every person who uses a cell phone has the potential for contributing to the problem.

However, here are two observations that we will respectfully offer for consideration:

  1. Individuals and small offices need to put forth more effort to recycle their smartphones and other devices. If your phone still works, consider keeping it. Most features on these devices are luxuries, not necessities. You could donate it or give it to someone who can use it. Even if the local recycling companies do not accept the device, tossing it in the trash can be a danger to others. One, if a smartphone with a lithium battery gets compressed inside of the drum of a garbage truck, it could explode, endangering the driver and other personnel. The cost of restoring or replacing these types of trucks is significant. Finally, keeping your device out of the trash keeps it out of the landfill. Considering that bills of devices end up in the landfill as it is, the more people who make this simple effort, it could help decrease the footprint these devices will have.
  2. Manufacturers must find better ways to address market needs without making the footprint worse. Instead of making disposable phones, it makes sense financially to make phones and devices more upgradable, eliminating the need to create new devices every 2 years or so. Instead of melting down the old chips for remanufacturing, find ways to reuse them. Bringing back the removable batteries will keep them out of the landfill as well. It will also make them easier to dismantle for recycling, leading to a better recovery of actual recyclable materials, a very cost-effective move.

Everyone has an individual responsibility to the environment. We live, work and play in it. With the size of the problem and the threat it poses, we can keep the environment healthy enough to keep living, working and playing in it. May we all prevent being bitten by the “disposable phone” bug, and ask the manufacturers to design better products without all the environmental risks currently associated with them. It will be good economically for everyone, and safe for the environment.


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