Protecting the environment is more important than economic gain for young people, according to the Masdar Gen Z Global Sustainability Survey of 5,000 youth aged 18 to 25. Hopefully these survey results bode well for the future since improper electronic waste disposal has serious implications for the environment as e-waste levels are rising every year. The United Nations reported that, in 2014, 41.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide. That number rose to 44.7 million metric tonnes in 2016, a seven percent increase in just two years. By 2021, e-waste is projected to reach 52.2 metric tonnes.
While electronics recycling provides numerous advantages for the environment, the top three benefits are:
- Reduced mining of virgin materials and energy reduction
- Removal of toxic materials from the waste stream
- Recovery of valuable resources
Reduced Mining of Virgin Materials Leads to Energy Use Reduction
Urban mining is the process of reclaiming raw materials from spent products, buildings and waste, including e-waste. As a form of recycling, urban mining is not only environmentally preferable to mining virgin materials, but also is more profitable and leads to overall energy reduction since recycling takes less energy than mining new commodities and less energy is used to manufacture and transport mined virgin materials.
As an example, two commonly recycled materials, aluminum and copper, offer dramatic savings when comparing the cost of the recycled version to mining virgin material. Recycling aluminum uses about five percent of the energy it takes to produce raw aluminum, and the global aluminum recycling industry as a whole prevents close to 170 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses (GHG) from entering the environment every year. Recycling copper, too, is very profitable since the value of scrap copper is approximately 85 to 95 percent the price of newly mined ore.
Researchers from Tsinghua and Macquarie universities have discovered that urban mining of precious metals such as gold and copper is more cost effective than mining virgin materials. The study analyzed data from eight recycling companies in China and found that, even after the costs of waste collection, labour, energy, material, transportation and equipment were accounted for, the copper and gold ore was cheaper to recover from e-waste than to mine traditionally. When Chinese government subsidies were included, the cost of traditional mining was 13 times more expensive.
Removal of Toxic Materials from the Waste Stream
According to Gary Diamond, CEO, Shift Recycling, the principal toxins in e-waste are lead from leaded glass in cathode ray tv tubes, mercury from LCD screens, batteries in general since they contain heavy metals such as cadmium and lithium, and heavy metals in circuit boards.
Removing toxic materials such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, chromium and others from the waste stream is very important when recycling old electronics. Mercury, for example, a component of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), is a neurotoxin.
Toxic materials that are removed from the waste stream through responsible recycling also avoid the fate of being sent to landfills, where the toxins can leach into groundwater. If recycling is not done by a fully certified, responsible recycler such as Shift, heavy metals and other hazardous compounds may be removed in the recycling process but then incinerated over an open flame, which releases the toxins into the air and surrounding water. This is common recycling practice in third world countries where e-waste is still sent from the first world for recycling. Unfortunately, countries in the developing world have few to no regulations for human and environmental safety.
Recovery of Valuable Resources
The recovery of valuable resources is a prime benefit of recycling e-waste. A United Nations University (UNU) study noted that to mine one gram of gold, companies need to move a ton of ore. However, the same amount of gold can be found in 41 mobile phones.
Extracting rare earth metals through recycling can assist in reducing geopolitical issues associated with conflict resources and rare earth trade disputes as well. Conflict resources are natural resources extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting, while the rare earth elements are 17 elements with magnetic and conductive properties that are used extensively in electronics and weaponry. Rare earth elements tend to be found in small concentrations that are not economically advantageous to extract and mining them is environmentally hazardous. By extracting more rare earth minerals through recycling, the world benefits not only from their monetary value but also from knowing that geopolitical conflicts were not exploited.
How Shift Recycling Is Making a Difference With E-Waste
In a typical day on earth, humans will add 15 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere, destroy 115 square miles of tropical rainforest, create 72 square miles of desert, eliminate between 40 to 100 species, and add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the stratosphere.
To counter these disturbing environmental trends, Shift Recycling has created a system in which the company recycles more than 70 tonnes of electronic waste per day. While it is a small step when considered on a global scale, it is nonetheless a positive statement in the e-waste world. If you’re ready to discuss your company’s e-waste disposal needs or you have questions about the topic, contact Shift today. You’ll be glad you did.