Can you imagine a cell phone that has practically zero waste? Where are the components of the phone can be reused in some fashion? It may sound too good to be true, however an article from Nexus Media, an online newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture, reports that a team of researchers are looking into just that – a “zero-waste” cell phone.
With an e-waste crisis on the rise, something of this nature would be very ideal. Today’s electronic stream is moving more rapidly than ever. With people not only opting to own and use more than one device at a time, many are upgrading handsets whenever they are able to. And phone companies make it easy with deals and promotions to be able to trade in old phones for the latest and greatest on the market. But the old phones that are being discarded are quickly becoming a huge source of waste, with many components ending up in landfills or incinerators.
While many of the phone’s components can be recycled, there are some materials that cannot be recycled due to either being inorganic, contaminated, or not easily removed from the device. And when these materials cannot be recycled or extracted, they typically end up in less than eco-friendly locations. For example, materials like fiberglass and resin – which make up the bulk of a cellphone’s circuit boards, often end up in landfills where they leak dangerous chemicals into our groundwater, soil, and air.
Consumer demand for the latest electronic devices contributes to the large amount of e-waste, and cell phones are the biggest problem. In 2006, the United Nations estimated annual global e-waste to be about 50 million metric tons. When these products are dumped or incinerated, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — moreover, so does making those products in the first place.
Amit Kumar, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, along with his colleagues have been looking into developing a process that will allow these previously un-recyclable components to be cleanly extracted from cell phones in order to become reusable material. “Manufacturing a new product requires water, soil, power, fuel and other natural resources,” said Kumar. “Dumping end-of-life electronics into landfills without recycling is a waste of those resources. It is of paramount importance that we keep raising awareness for recycling, reprocessing and make a zero-waste scenario as the final goal in recycling of not only e-waste but other wastes as well.”
The team developed a process to separate fiberglass from resin – two substances that have proved to be nearly impossible to recycle. With the end goal being a greener world, the research team wanted to avoid using chemical, heat or physical means to separate the material, as these are “energy consuming” processes.” Instead, the team uses a technique known as “gravity separation” to cleanly lift organic resins from inorganic fiberglass in a way that does not harm the environment.
Developed by Ronin8 Technologies, the process uses sound to achieve the separation. Calculating the density of the materials and circulating the materials in recycled water through a sonic chamber, where the sonic (sound) vibrations essentially separate the materials from one another, the process is quite simple, eco-friendly, and cost efficient.
With China’s recent ban on waste imports, the research has come at an inopportune time. Kumar comments, “The separated fiberglass can then be used as a raw material for construction and insulation. In the future, if we can find a way to improve the quality of the recycled fiberglass, it may even be suitable for manufacturing new circuit boards.”
The researchers are working with the Canada-based Ronin8 facility to develop a large-scale commercial model of the process. The company seeks to promote an environmentally friendly method that will separate different plastics, fibers and metals in electronic waste streams without using toxic chemicals or losing precious metals. The company’s aim is “to address the intrinsic faults in traditional e-waste processes today,” by achieving zero-waste solutions for electronics, said Travis Janke, director of engineering at Ronin8.
Kumar said they focused on cell phones because of their higher value and lower lifespan compared to other products. “However, the materials used in this research were circuit boards obtained from cell phones, laptops, desktops, printers and other small household electronic devices,” he said.
However, consumers, manufacturers and others must begin working together to find solutions — including those beyond the scope of the research, he said. This means manufacturers must become more responsible for what happens after consumers abandon old products for new ones, and they must develop sustainable reprocessing technology. Also, consumers must become more aware of the impact that comes from throwing out electronics.