E-waste: A Guide Towards More Sustainable Future

18. 5 .2022, Alexandra Tomalová

E-waste has converted to the fastest growing waste stream in the world as a result of decreased quality of electronic and electrical equipment, high repairing prices, and a shortage of capacities able to dismantle e-waste manually on a local scale. Instead of addressing the above causes, the western world ships e-waste accumulated over time to developing countries such as Ghana. Surely, this solution is not sustainable, so what can be done?

Electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) is used to a great extent all over the globe, and the use of such appliances on a daily basis has made our lives more comfortable. However, constant innovations make it harder to resist trying and buying the latest technology. If EEE has improved our living standards enormously, then why should we change the way we consume and dispose of e-waste?

According to predictions, the world will produce 75 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2030, and therefore, it is considered the fastest growing waste stream in the world. This is very concerning, not only because many of the products discarded could be reused or recycled but also because e-waste contains harmful chemicals that can leach into the environment.

Current Disposal Practises of E-waste

The constantly increasing generation of e-waste is a result of high repairing prices for EEE, which often discourages consumers from repairing a product but instead investing in its replacement. 

As a result, it is very common for consumers to dispose of unwanted EEE by throwing it into general waste or recycling it under non-compliant conditions. And unfortunately, only 35% of e-waste generated in Europe is recycled or disposed of in the official collection systems. Consequently, this raises the question of what happens with the remaining 65% of e-waste? 

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of e-waste are delivered to Ghana yearly, and as much as 85% of it originates from Europe. To illustrate the severity of this issue, in 2009, Ghana received about 215,000 tonnes of e-waste, equivalent to nine kilograms per resident. Once transported to Ghana, e-waste undergoes an informal recycling process, including melting away the plastic insulation around wires or circuit boards to salvage the metal. 

The figures mentioned above are alarming because e-waste can pose environmental and health threats if not disposed of adequately. Therefore, it is crucial to mitigate and avoid such handling of e-waste.

Current management strategies of e-waste could make us think it has little value, but this statement could not be further from the truth. E-waste has a high content of various precious minerals, such as gold, silver, platinum, and copper. To illustrate the real value of e-waste, the gold which can be found in e-waste globally is equal to as much as 11% of the total metal mined each year. 

Some technologies enable the extraction of these metals from e-waste; however, their use is very inefficient and expensive. In addition, the decreasing presence of precious metals in electronics makes it more challenging for large-scale processors to recover their full value.

What can be done to minimize the negative impacts of e-waste?

Apart from changing our consumption habits, it is also essential to think about the management of e-waste and its transition towards management at a local level and recover the full value of precious metals through manual dismantling.

Currently, there are only a few companies across Europe, which focus on manual dismantling of e-waste, allowing greater extraction of precious metals from electronics that would otherwise have to be mined. 

There is a great potential in local e-waste management sites with focus on manual dismantling, as it is estimated that a site with up to 130 employees can process as much as 1,500 tonnes of e-waste per year.

It is easier to dismantle precious metals manually and prepare them for further processing when compared to the use of machine processing, which diminishes the purity of given material by grinding the electronics into small pieces. 

Consequently, all particles need to be separated using magnets, air, or water. However, it is common for copper and brass to get mixed up during such processes, resulting in downcycling, recycling that produces a lower-quality product. 

The declining quality of materials used to produce new appliances creates challenges related to durability and recycling of such products. As a result, the amount of material recycled and used again for its original purpose has decreased by 30 - 40%. 

Another solution to more sustainable management of e-waste is to sell it on Europe’s largest industrial waste digital platform, Cyrkl. As a result, you will find the best potential clients and consequently, maximize the value of your waste

Additionally, the latest tool available on Cyrkl, auctions, allows the fast sale of large amounts of waste materials, and the seller may select the winning bid not only according to economic indicators but also consider ethical or sustainable factors.

‐ Alexandra Tomalová

Cyrkl in the media