E-waste or electronic waste is a collective term for electronic devices (from aeroplane cockpit consoles to the cell phone you are probably reading this on) that are broken, unwanted or reaching the end of their ‘useful life’.
E-waste is not a new phenomenon, we have been discarding electronic products since Thomas Edison patented the electric light bulb. In recent years however, e-waste has been getting more attention, not for its novelty but for the dizzying speed at which the mounds of electronic waste are piling up.
With more and more people worldwide joining the digital revolution and the speed of technological advances (and the subsequent obsolescence of ‘old’ models) showing no sign of slowing down, e-waste has become the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the world.
Just think of the evolution from VCR to DVD to the streaming services that we now consume most of our media on. The VCR, invented in 1956, was a technology that was with us for 40 years before the DVD replaced it in 1996. A mere 14 years later, streaming services hit the market and 24 short years after its invention the DVD is all but obsolete. There’s always a newer model or service hitting the market with features that just seem too enticing to resist, requiring greater and greater amounts of resources to satisfy demand and ramping up the amount of e-waste generated.
Currently only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled, the balance of these unwanted products end up in landfills. Aside from the obvious waste of resources (gold and silver being among them) the amount of e-waste ending up in our landfills has a serious environmental and human toll. In their solid state, electronic devices are not considered toxic to the consumer but the lead, cadmium and mercury they contain is released as they begin to degrade. This leaches into the soil and groundwater posing serious health risks to both people and wildlife.
By recycling the precious metals we already have above ground we are not only preventing the issue of hazardous e-waste but also lessening the need for mining of virgin ore, which of course has its own social and ecological toll. Urban mining, a circular approach to materials that views the cities waste resources as a “mine”, can actually yield more valuable than mining virgin ore. One ton of circuit boards is estimated to contain 40 times more gold than one ton of ore.
E-waste recycling is on the rise, creating many jobs at a time when increased automation and mine closures have seen a drastic decrease in employment in that sector. Thinking of resources as part of the circular economy rather than materials to be extracted and then discarded is a win for job creation, ecosystems, wildlife and the economy.