Though primarily still an issue for the world’s developed societies, the problem of electronic waste and e-waste recycling and recovery of valuable materials continues to escalate and will ultimately affect us all.
The following information, which mainly focuses on data from the UK and the USA gives a snapshot of the scale of one of the hidden costs of modern living.
Worldwide, somewhere between 20 and 50 million metric tons of e-waste are processed every twelve months, and yet at present, only 12.5 per cent of this total gets recycled. In America, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) identifies e-waste as the ‘fastest growing municipal waste stream’. They also comment that much of this ‘e-waste’ actually consists of ‘whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery.’
All types of cell phones and similar electronic devices use build components containing high quantities of recoverable precious metals – often silver and gold. It is estimated that 1 million cell phones, when recycled, would yield 33 pounds of palladium, 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, and a staggering 35,274 pounds of copper.
During any one year, the USA alone discards cell phones containing gold and silver worth a total of $60 million.
To understand the resource intensive nature of electronics manufacture, figures show that to build just one desktop computer and monitor takes 539 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals and at least 1.5 tons of water.
If 1 million laptops were recycled, enough energy would be saved to supply the power needs of 3,657 American homes for twelve months.
According to US figures, between 80 and 85 per cent of waste electronic products find their way to incinerators or landfill. Though e-waste is just a tiny 2 per cent of the USA’s total waste to landfill, it nevertheless accounts for 70 per cent of the US toxic waste total. The resultant release of toxins into the atmosphere can have devastating consequences – just the lead content on its own contaminates the blood and damages the nervous system and kidneys.
Electronic devices considered most harmful to health include LCD-screen type DVDs, Plasma and LCD TVs, LCD display laptops, LCD monitors and all equipment fitted with cathode-ray tubes.
The constant release of new feature enhanced products exerts considerable market pressure on consumers and the useful life of all electronic products appears to be reducing, with TVs for example typically lasting 5 – 7 years and PCs 3- 4 years. Commenting on this trend, the New York Times said: ‘… consumers seem willing to upgrade their (TV) sets more frequently than they did in the tube era, when it was not uncommon for them to use the same sets for a decade or more…’
In the UK, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) predicts a total of some 10 million tonnes of electronics will be bought in the UK before the end of 2020 and that 25 per cent of this will comprise IT equipment, display screens and consumer digital devices. The precious metal component of this 10 million tonnes is likely to yield 7 tonnes of platinum, 20 tonnes of gold, and 400 tonnes of silver – worth around £1.5 billion at current prices.
Almost a quarter of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) presently bound for domestic waste centres and thence to landfill, could potentially be re-used. This flow is valued at £200m gross per annum and it is estimated that simply by pursuing recycling opportunities, the UK could potentially cut its need for raw materials, including precious metals, by up to a fifth before the end of 2020.
So, in light of our top ten WEEE recycling facts, the more we can encourage the recycling of these products the better it is for our environment. We can all help improve the disposable society we appear to be living in now and stop throwing valuable, yet unwanted, electrical products into landfill sites.
Please get in touch with the team here at Hinton’s Waste to find out more about our WEEE recycling services.