Electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is waste electronic items — electronic devices from DVD players to laptops to iPods that are no longer wanted, whether they still work or not. Everything from TVs to VCRs, LAN cables to routers, smartphones to flash disks, become e-waste when they’re discarded.
It’s one of the fastest-growing portions of the US waste stream, and though it’s largely recyclable, the majority of it winds up in landfills, where it leaches toxins into the soil and water.
Toxins that escape from e-waste include heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium, fire-risk reducers like brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and rare trace elements like beryllium, which is a known human carcinogen.
The environmental damage isn’t the only issue; every time a device is thrown away, crucial raw materials — gold, silver, copper, and more — are lost. Sometimes they’re reclaimed unofficially; more often they’re just buried in landfills.
Recovering these materials and reducing the environmental harms of our consumption of electronics is a major business opportunity; to leverage that opportunity best, you’ll need a tool that can deliver data about generators and waste processing facilities, accurately and in real-time.
We’ll get to that, but first, let’s cover the condition of the e-waste sector.
E-waste is a fast-growing sector
The e-waste sector is growing rapidly, for two reasons: one, because the tech sector is growing, and two, because tech products last for shorter periods of time than ever before.
The electronics and tech sector grew from 2% to 3% in 2019. Obviously, in 2020, it contracted, by about 6%, and is expected to recover from that loss fully and grow by 6% to 7% in 2021.
This represents a rate of growth roughly similar to the wider economy, but the amount of waste generated by electronics is growing at a much faster rate.
That’s partly because tech products are being used for shorter amounts of time before being thrown away. Seen as consumer products rather than investments, mobile phones and wearables are the products with the shortest shelf-life; flatscreen monitors, which have improved at a much slower rate and represent a much bigger one-off expense, survive the longest.
In 2020 the UN released a report showing that e-waste — defined as any waste product with a battery or a plug — had grown by 21% in the five years to 2019 and was expected to reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030, doubling from the 2014 number. By 2050, says Ruediger Kuehr, programme director at United Nations University and an expert in e-waste, ‘we will have 120 million tonnes per year of e-waste.’
E-waste is the world’s largest domestic waste stream and it’s pulling ahead of other waste types. It’s pulling ahead of efforts to recycle it too. Only 17% of discarded e-waste globally was recycled in 2019, with world leader Europe recycling 42% of its e-waste and Asia recycling 11.7% of its e-waste. The United States recycles just 9.4% of its e-waste.
Issues with e-waste disposal
E-waste disposal involves hazards and opportunities. In the first place, much e-waste ends its life in landfills. That means dumping 5.8 million tons of electronics waste in landfills, a figure that includes billions of dollars’ worth of rare raw materials.
Those raw materials include toxic heavy metals and plastics that can cause serious, long-lasting and potentially dangerous pollution. Electronic waste is 2% of landfill and over two-thirds of heavy metals pollution.
Dumping them is a loss to the global supply chain. In particular, crucial and hard-to-replace materials like copper are lost at ever-increasing rates as electronics are dumped. The EPA estimates that for every million cellphones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
These metals are worth enough as raw materials that some academics have experimented with mining waste streams; in low-income countries that have traditionally taken in electronic waste, this is done unofficially in ways that injure people and damage the environment.
The appeal can be difficult or impossible to ignore when one metric ton of discarded circuit boards can contain 400 to 800 times more gold than a metric ton of conventional ore.
In Skellefteå, Sweden, the Bolliden waste smelter smelted 88,000 tons of e-waste from European circuit boards and mobile phones, treating them just like ore and extracting gold, copper and silver.
In fact, a 2018 research paper by Xianlai Zheng and others found that ‘urban mining of e-waste is becoming more cost-effective than virgin mining.’
Currently, copper, gold and other vital metals get into the supply chain in the first place by way of open-cast leach mining that creates gigantic quantities of overburden, leachate and sludge; failure to integrate the electronics supply chain has a compound effect upstream as well as down.
Currently, there is little infrastructure in the United States to address the economic and environmental loss that e-waste represents.
The future of e-waste
The future of e-waste cannot resemble the past, with a small minority recycled and the rest discarded. The value of the raw materials in e-waste rises all the time in comparison to the increasingly poor ores now being exploited for metals production. And environmental costs are increasingly translating themselves into economic costs.
The EU expects its efforts to create a ‘circular economy’ will both reduce the environmental impacts of waste, and generate an economic boon as valuable raw materials are returned to the supply chain and skilled jobs are created. Other regions won’t want to be left behind if this is successful.
In the US, there’s the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES), which the EPA hopes will ‘create green jobs, lead to more productive reuse of valuable materials, and support a vibrant American recycling and refurbishing industry.’
It’s administered by a group of 16 federal departments and agencies called the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship, and lists four overarching policy goals:
- Build incentives for design of greener electronics, and enhance science, research and technology development in the United States
- Ensure that the federal government leads by example
- Increase safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the United States
- Reduce harm from US exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries
However, the NSES provides recommendations for stakeholders rather than handing down decrees and state-led efforts have produced little result.
The good news for now, though, is that e-waste in the US is actually decreasing on its own. It’s down 10% from its 2015 peak. A study by Callie Babbit, associate professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, shows that the driving forces behind this are technological innovation and changing consumer preferences.
Professor Babbit points out that device convergence — the tendency of more devices to do more of each others’ jobs — reduces the demand for new devices too.
Finally, new electronic devices are smaller and lighter, more materials-efficient, and contain fewer hazardous materials. A modern TV isn’t just much lighter than an old-fashioned cathode ray tube or the first generation of flatscreens. It also doesn’t contain leaded glass or mercury.
But these are changes in a gigantic volume of waste. It’s like hearing the Mississippi is down 10% from last year; it’s still going to be plenty big. And the e-waste stream remains large and serious.
Where does e-waste need to be disposed of?
Currently, a policy aimed at diverting e-waste from landfills leads many states to require e-waste processing separately from the solid waste stream. Regulations differ from state to state — California regards cellphones as hazardous waste, and imposes a tax on the sale of electronics to pay for recycling.
There’s legislation coming up that will indirectly change how states treat e-waste, too. For instance, 2021 is likely to see the end of carrier-locked mobile phones nationwide, which will likely incentivize consumers to opt for handsets with longer lives. Privacy laws in California will require data to be wiped from devices before disposal.
Disposing of e-waste now usually means taking it to be recycled, and there are two voluntary recycling registration schemes for e-waste recyclers in the USA: the Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS), and the e-Stewards.org standard. If the waste isn’t being recycled, it needs to be taken to an appropriate facility for disposal.
Leading e-waste players
Consumers don’t yet have strong purchase patterns for recycled electronics, and tend to be wary of them. That generates competition between established players in the e-waste and recycling/reclamation market.
Key players include Aurubis, a world leader in copper recycling that buys electronics scrap for its metals content; Electronics Recycling International, Inc. (ERI), which specializes in demanufacture and refurbishment as well as recycling of electronics; and Boliden, a mining company that has turned its attention to extracting metals from scrap by smelting it as if it were ore.
Each of these companies has a very different approach to e-waste. They’re building on their core competencies, approaching e-waste through the lens of product reclamation, raw materials extraction, or recycling. In addition, some are global in scope while others are regional; Aurubis and Boliden, for instance, have a European focus, while Enviro-Hub Holdings has a global presence weighted toward the Pacific Rim.
As regulations on e-waste grow, and businesses begin to see opportunities in these waste streams, we can expect to see more players join the market.
Wastebits Insights™: A waste trends and industry data tool for e-waste professionals
Waste brokers and professionals need to be able to select disposal sites for their clients and arrange transportation, storage and disposal. There’s compliance and price to tick off the list, but there’s also a huge amount of information to wade through. That’s what Insights is for.
It makes it easy for waste brokers to manage multiple profiles from multiple waste generators, track the status of pending profiles, and provide notifications when profiles are due to expire. This means a disposal site that uses Wastebits has a distinct advantage over one that does not.
And Insights gives brokers unique advantages too, including the ability to sort activity by name, date, ID and more, letting you easily drill down into your reports to see manifests, volume and location trends.
What’s more interesting, however, is the ability to zoom in on sites, locations, and companies that generate e-waste — and on businesses that actively want to buy it for recycling, reuse, reclamation or, yes, even smelting. Wastebits gives you the data you need to connect the two, to their benefit and your profit.
Wastebits Insights™ for e-waste business analysts
For business analysts who are not directly involved in operations, Insights has value too. Insights can help users identify an organization’s business needs and opportunities, pinpointing sources of ‘raw materials’ for reclamation businesses just as surely as it can identify immediate opportunities for sales.
For BAs focused on process design, Insights is an ancillary tool: it can’t plan or build your process for you, but it can flag directions your process should look to generate revenue, linking your business with potential generators, vendors and customers.