E-waste is much more than just dusty smartphones and laptops. Housed inside these dated devices are various precious metals and still usable material. According to Federico Magalini, an electronic waste expert and Managing Director of Sofies UK, there is 80 times as much gold in one ton of cellphones as there is in a gold mine. In other words, there is an enormous potential and incentive for recycling these electronic devices – and yet, most people still keep their old devices shoved in their drawers, collecting dust at home.
But it looks like this may change soon. Lately, there has been a lot of public interest in end-of-life electronics. For example, Apple recently debuted Daisy, a robot designed to disassemble old iPhones, in celebration of Earth Day. Also, Reuters reported a South Korean factory that specializes in retrieving precious metals from car batteries. And in a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers argued that recovering materials from discarded electronics – often called “urban mining” – makes more financial sense than mining for new materials from the Earth.
But there are too many questions surrounding e-waste. What exactly is e-waste? Does it encompass more than just batteries and smartphones? What happens to the devices when they are recycled? How much do we really gain from recycling these devices? To answer these questions, The Verge interviewed Magalini, an expert on e-waste research, to layout the reasons why e-waste recycling is a vital to our planet’s future.
To start off, Magalini explains what e-waste is. “The best definition of e-waste is any product you discard that is still working, is connected to a plug, and has a battery,” he comments. “This also includes devices that generate electricity, like solar panels. It’s a lot of products, and people should think more about how many of these gadgets they have in the house. The number is about 80 devices per family. But when you tell people, they don’t believe you.”
Can you count the number of devices you have in your home? Does the number surprise you? It’s unbelievable how many electronic devices we surround ourselves with. But do you use all these devices on a daily basis?
Magalini explains that a large part of the e-waste problem is that we are emotionally attached to our electronic devices, whether we still use them or not. Aside from viewing our old laptops, smartphones, and other tech gadgets as sentimental objects, many are also very wary of recycling or re-selling their old devices due to data security. Because of these two factors, a huge amount of material is not entering the recycling stream. Without thinking of the consequences, many of us are keeping these devices at home and preventing natural resources from going back into the economic cycle.
The majority of electronic waste is metal-dominated: iron, copper, aluminum, and then plastics, of course. In much smaller amounts, you have more precious metals like copper, silver, gold, palladium, iridium, and rare earth metals. And all those fancy technology metals, like lithium and cobalt, are widely used by the electronics industry. Historically, metals have value, and you can recycle metal forever. For plastic, it’s different because every time you recycle the plastics, the mechanical properties don’t necessarily remain the same.
There are many benefits to recycling your unwanted electronics. You will keep potentially hazardous materials out of the waste stream that can end up in landfills while conserving natural resources such as wood products, water and raw minerals mined from the ground, and you will avoid air and water pollution associated with the need to collect raw materials. In addition, the manufacturing process has been linked to greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.
Furthermore, recycling in general can create jobs, and recycling done in the right way can be a profitable business. There is a good opportunity to keep our environment clean, to keep resources in the loop, so there are societal benefits in recycling. The worst thing that can happen is that we keep producing new phones and all the discarded ones are just staying in our drawers because resources are limited. If we keep those resources in our houses, hidden, then we might face a supply chain problems or restriction in the near future.