What would it take to create wealth, improve health, and reduce glittering electronic waste all at the same time?
Electronic devices have become so ever-present that many people cannot function without them. However, the mining process for their components is destroying the environment and exhausting natural resources.
Many cities are turning to urban mining as an alternative to divert valuable resources from landfills and find better uses for them. It’s not just about saving money — It’s about saving resources for future generations.
In 2021 alone, each person generates 7.6 kg per capita of electronic waste, resulting in almost 58 million metric tons of electronic waste. Now, that’s massive! To put into perspective, this is equivalent to the 11 Pyramids of Giza.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, electronic devices have become a lifeline for people seeking to stay in touch with friends, family, and healthcare professionals. While smartphones have become helpful in education and business, they have benefits and drawbacks.
Additionally, it allows children access to progressive learning opportunities. On the other hand, their use exposes children to social media trends and online gaming’s ill effects. As individuals turned to artificial intelligence for aid with daily chores previously done by humans, demand for laptops, PCs, and tablets increased by 4.6 percent. The combined effect of these trends resulted in privacy violations and a lack of physical activity.
In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste, an alarming 21 percent increase from the last five years. The reports also predicted that the generation of e-waste will reach 74 million metric tons globally by 2030. The increasing trend of electronic waste because technology companies are designing electronics to have shorter life cycles, frequent changes in technology, shorter life spans, and limited options for repair all contribute to the rapid increase in e-waste.
In the same year, Asia was responsible for an enormous volume of e-waste generated globally, with 24.9 million metric tons. The Americas came in second with 13.1 million metric tons, followed by Europe with 12 million and Africa and Oceania with 2.9 million each.
Sadly, only 17.4% of global e-waste was collected and treated, while 82.6% went uncollected and untreated. It means that precious and platinum group metals, polymers, and other non-metals are at risk of being discarded or burned rather than being recovered as secondary raw materials to extend resource life.
The mining of virgin materials has resulted in environmental catastrophes in the past and threatens to undermine efforts toward sustainability. The earth’s core is depleting due to the mining actions, resulting in natural disasters and permanent loss of life and habitat. Global warming is increasing at an alarming rate. It is terrorizing the globe with extinction. To overcome these dangers created by man, it is time that we innovate sustainable methods for utilizing existing natural resources.
The most often used metals are the following:
Gold is used in electrical connectors, switches, relay contacts, soldered joints, connecting wires, and connection strips because it is an excellent conductor that can carry current without corrosion.
Silver is the highest electrical conductivity and thermal conductivity of any metal. The white metal is for solder, electrical contacts, and printed circuit boards.
Platinum is used in standard technology to make fiberglass, LCD glass, and cathode-ray tubes.
Copper is used in electrical wirings, including power generation, power transmission, power distribution, telecommunications, electronics circuitry, and countless types of electrical equipment. The metal also makes reliable electrical contacts.
Palladium is used in multilayer ceramic capacitors, component and connector plating, and catalytic converters. Palladium is used in consumer electronics as electrode material in laptops, computers, and mobile phones.
Aluminum’s versatility makes it the most widely used metal after steel. It is light, easily malleable and corrosion-resistant, has high electrical conductivity, and is relatively cheap to produce
What if we could recycle and recover these materials from e-waste without causing harm to the environment or human health?
Electronic waste processing can be complex and deal with various toxic substances. Despite these obstacles, it is possible to create a global benchmark technology and infrastructure facility. It would be possible through a concept known as urban mining or above-ground mining. Urban mining is the new trend in the processing of Electronic-Waste, and carrying it out in a formal system is essential to achieving a sustainable and circular economy.
Demand and Supply Dynamics
The demand for earth’s essential metals has been increasing over the years. While we benefit from it, it is harmful to the environment and makes no economic sense. Mining rare earth metals are becoming increasingly difficult because of their dwindling supply. Again, only 17.4% of e-waste generated globally process through formal channels. Most consumers have nowhere to take their old computers and cell phones. What would happen if 100% of all electronic waste was recycled? We could achieve the demand or more by urban mining what we need ng instead of continuing to dig up new virgin sources.
As our population expands, so too will our demand for electronics. The problem is that many of the metals used in electronics are scarce and difficult to find in sufficient quantities. Over 50% of all rare earth metals used in electronics come from China alone. Only five countries produce enough rare earth metals to meet global demand: Australia, Brazil, China, India, and Vietnam. If one government does not export its resources or bans exports altogether, other countries may start running into supply problems.
Gold Rush in Our Trash
More companies turn to innovative solutions as our planet faces increasingly complex problems. A rising solution to the scarcity of crucial metal resources is urban mining. Volkswagen recently built a battery recycling plant on recycling electric vehicle batteries. Apple aimed to make all of its products from 100% recycled materials.
It is an industry that recovers valuable metal from discarded electronic devices, including mobile phones and computers, to reprocess and provide to other industries. Gold, lithium, cobalt, titanium, and nickel are the primary metals.
Recycling small electronic devices is an exciting challenge. There is approximately $50 billion in small electronics on the market today. Possibly all of them end up in landfills. Perhaps it ended up in a landfill or your drawers. A considerable amount of gold and silver that could be recovered is 50 tons, 500 tons, and 20,000 tons. The estimated total value recovered in electronic waste is $65 billion. This is a real business opportunity!
Recycling may help alleviate some of these problems. Even though recycling reduces waste created by manufacturing new products from virgin materials, it doesn’t address the issue of the depletion of resources or the environmental damage caused by the actual mining process. Recycling can worsen these problems if not done correctly because it still involves energy-intensive processes like melting old smartphones. Whether an old phone is recycled, it will probably be in a landfill because of hazardous waste disposal regulations.
A number of processes that need to be done, like manual dismantling and segregation—then converted to power boards, PCBs, power supplies, plastics, etc. All the electronic waste collected will be CONVERTED into raw materials. For ferrous and non-ferrous metals, this will undergo a smelting process and transform into new metals. The PCB boards with precious metals like gold, silver, and palladium will go through a refining process. Overall, about 70% of the materials from electronic waste can be recycled. The rest can be used for construction materials or generating energy.
We have solutions for the e-waste problem—we need to start using them. One solution is responsible recycling, which entails sending old electronics to a reliable electronic waste recycling facility.
After the agricultural revolution and the IT revolution, a new kind of revolution is underway: the E-waste revolution. The planet will continue to deteriorate unless we all work together to solve this problem. We need to create and enforce mandatory global best practices in developing nations. Maximizing the recovery of precious metals from electronic waste is imperative to enforce a standard policy across nations. Policies must focus on best practices globally and implement one standard technology for developed and developing countries. Also, mandating transparency of E-waste collection as urban mining can help in reducing the negative impacts caused by informal recycling operations. To minimize the effects of electronic waste, we must transform the informal sector into a formal and structured process—regulation of urban mining to balance nature and protect our planet. We must return to our roots and follow the path of circularity to preserve our natural resources.
For businesses that want to move forward to the future, there is no way but to invest in innovative methods geared towards reclaiming critical metals while preserving the planet. It must also be essential to realize that this is all about connectivity. This is not about the manufacturing and recycling companies, but this is good; it’s good for everybody!