Why Recycle E-Waste?
The electronics market has grown from a few small companies in Silicon Valley to thousands of businesses with influence on nearly every aspect of everyday life. This growth can be linked to the rise of hundreds of thousands of inventions and discoveries that have helped humanity considerably, including smartphones, space exploration, medical science, the cloud, particle accelerators, calculators, and even cats on YouTube via powerful algorithms and neural networks.
However, all of this progress comes with a price tag beyond the cost of R&D and what consumers spend on gadgets. The electronics industry requires unique physical components, namely semiconductor materials such as silicon. Mining operations to unearth more of these precious resources are notoriously damaging to the environment, as are the effects of burying toxic electronics in landfills.
The environmental concerns associated with electronics were ignored for several decades until the 90s when governments around the world began to outlaw harmful substances and increase incentives for recycling materials.
E-waste is slowly becoming a problem but recycling plants like these can help. Image courtesy of George Hotelling [CC BY-SA 2.0]
At first, recycling waste was a pain as it was a relatively new technology where the cost to create something from raw materials was lower than the cost to recycle the same material. This cost issue resulted in government schemes designed to encourage businesses to recycle. This included tax cuts, funding for recycling projects, and awareness campaigns.
As time progressed, the cost of recycling went down while efficiency and yields increased. This has turned some recycled material (such as paper) into a viable raw material for production use. However, recycling can be affected by global markets just as much as raw materials.
The Economics of E-Waste Recycling
There are layers of difficulty when it comes to recycling electronics materials back into usable products.
First off, there's the issue of actually making the materials usable again. After all, for a recycling center to operate, the materials it produces must be used. The centers can’t just recycle material and then hoard it in storage containers.
Even if a recycling center can produce a usable material, the next question is whether or not anyone will buy it. Perhaps the largest issue is that successful recycling is only viable when the use of such material by a manufacturer does not come at a cost to that manufacturer. In other words, why would a manufacturer use recycled material if purchasing new raw material is a cheaper alternative?
This leads to the crux of the recyclable materials issue: economics.
Image courtesy of the Monterey Regional Waste Management District.
Recycling centers must also consider what can be considered an acceptable loss for selling recycled materials. Many recycling centers are funded by local governments but must sell the materials they produce to help balance the budget. Therefore, when deciding what price to sell the material at, the raw material cost for virgin material must be considered, as well. This leads to a problem where, if a raw material suddenly drops in value, a center may have to cease recycling as they will not be able to sell that recovered material at an acceptable price and stay in business.
Thanks to the recent value drop in lead glass, for example, one recycling center in Brunswick County, North Carolina, is now refusing old electronic waste. This is a situation that we can see repeated across the US. From Rhode Island to New Jersey to Texas, facilities decline to accept e-waste primarily for financial reasons, often in conjunction with changes to local or state regulations.
What to Do with Recyclable Materials
How does this affect engineers and product designers alike? Thankfully, for now, this won’t affect electronics companies in general because the raw material that has dropped in price is lead glass (which is generally only found in old CRT monitors). However, that does not mean electronic waste currently produced by modern devices is safe. The recycling industry would experience much larger upset if the price of copper, gold, or plastics dropped enough. In that scenario, it's possible that recycling centers could decline accepting e-waste altogether.
From an industrial standpoint, companies will reliably choose the least expensive option for manufacturing. If using recycled materials proves too expensive, they may attempt to reduce the amount of materials used in their designs. Researchers are also consistently looking for the next viable semiconductor material that could replace silicon, often looking to more accessible and plentiful options that hopefully have less impact on the environment.
There's also a good chance that the market will change again, given time. In fact, it's a virtual guarantee that recycling will become necessary, especially if silicon remains the go-to semiconductor (there's only so much to mine, after all). So don't count recyclable materials out just yet.
In the meantime, if your local recycling plant doesn't accept e-waste, it may be wise to hold onto old electronics until their policies change.
Electronic components can readily be scrapped from old circuits. Image courtesy of Ivan2010 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
It's important to be aware of where electronics go after they're in the hands of recycling plants, though. Last year, it came to light that much of e-waste is actually offloaded to landfills overseas rather than rightfully recycled. The BAN (Basel Action Network) attached GPS trackers to old electronics and confirmed that much of what we think is being responsibly recycled is actually just thrown away farther from home. Check out the BAN's network for more information on e-waste transparency and learn which recycling facilities meet e-Stewardship standards.
An Alternative: Reuse
While there are many readers here who enjoy going to big online distributors and purchasing all their parts brand new, there will always be the few who prefer to extract parts from old devices. Some components will not be worth salvaging due to the hassle it will cause (such as small surface mount passive devices), but some are worth the time.
If you're not sure what to do with your e-waste and there isn't a recycling facility nearby, remember that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Consider offering your old electronics to someone who could find useful stuff lurking beneath the metal and plastic. If you're curious, here's a list of things you can scavenge from old electronics, yourself:
- Transformers – Find these in mains powered devices and are useful in power supply design
- Electrolytic capacitors – Large ones are expensive and you can save some real money if you open up an old TV. Note, be cautious with CRTs as they contain large quantities of lead!
- ICs – While ICs are usually specific to a job, some devices do contain ICs that can be used in other projects including microcontrollers, logic chips, drivers, opto-isolations, rectifiers, DC-DC switch mode regulators, and radio related communication chips
- Passive Components – Through hole passives are easy to salvage with the help of a solder pump. Components that are useful include inductors and odd valued resistors
- Electromechanical Parts – These include speakers, coils, microphones, solenoids, relays, and other bulky parts that are very easy to reuse
- Connectors – Connectors come in all shape and sizes including power connectors, pin headers, sockets, springs, and even ribbon cables
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Recycling is a very important practice to help prevent environmental damage caused by the electronics industry. However, just like any other technology, it is heavily dependent on economies of scale and the raw materials market.