Every year, millions of televisions, phones and other electronic equipment are being discarded, despite them being a rich source of metals. Thanks to e-waste mining, the industry not only has the potential to see immense growth but to find innovative ways to keep our planet sustainable.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla’s conducts “urban mining,” which is simply defined as the process of reclaiming raw materials from spent products, buildings and waste. At the University of New South Wales (UNSW), she extracts materials from electronic gadgets instead of from rocks. The Sydney-based expert in materials science believes that her operation will become efficient enough to be making a profit within a couple of years.
“Economic modelling shows the cost of around $500,000 Australian dollars for a micro-factory pays off in two to three years, and can generate revenue and create jobs,” Sahajwalla comments.
In fact, research indicates that such facilities can actually be far more profitable than traditional mining. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the average cathode-ray tube television contains about 450g of copper and 227g of aluminium, as well as around 5.6g of gold. While a gold mine can generate five or six grammes of the metal per tonne of raw material, that figure rises to as much as 350g per tonne when the source is discarded electronics.
“The mining of e-waste, and production of pure metal ingots from it of copper or gold, promises to be a very profitable business,” said Macquarie’s professor John Mathews in the publication. “The earliest practitioners are likely to be metals specialists, particularly small entrepreneurial firms who are aware of the scale of the e-waste problem.”
The amount of e-waste being generated certainly suggests that the business opportunities for recycling will increase. The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, estimates that about 45 millions tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2016, and is expected to top 50 million tonnes by 2021.
With China now cracking down on imports of e-waste for recycling, there’s increasing pressure on the EU, the US, Australia and Japan to find solutions of their own.
And one of the most appeal aspects of Sahajwalla’s solution is that while traditional mining is labour-intensive, e-waste mining can be highly automated. At Sahajwalla’s micro-factory, for example, robots are used to identify and separate useful parts. She says e-waste passes through a sort of production line. “The discarded-waste devices are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module involves a special robot to extract useful parts. “Another module uses a small furnace to separate the metallic parts into valuable materials, while another one reforms the plastic into a high-grade filament suitable for 3D printing,” she says.
Apple, meanwhile, is trying to counter criticisms that its phones are difficult to recycle with the recent demonstration of a robot – called Daisy – that can disassemble up to 200 iPhones an hour. Daisy can handle nine different models of the phone, separating parts and removing useful components.
Professor Mathews says more manufacturers should be making an effort to ensure their products can be mined at the end of their useful life. “One of the best policy supports for e-waste will be payment of a deposit to consumers who return their e-products like cell phones to central collection points,” he says. “There could also be incentives paid to manufacturers to make their products more easily disassembled.”