E-waste is usually regarded as a waste problem, which can cause environmental damage if not dealt with in an appropriate way. However, the enormous resource impact of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is widely overlooked. Summarizing the lack of closing the loop for electronic and electrical devices leads not only to significant environmental problems but also to systematic depletion of the resource base in secondary materials. Modern electronics can contain up to 60 different elements; many are valuable, some are hazardous and some are both. The most complex mix of substances is usually present in the printed wiring boards (PWBs).
In its entity electrical and electronic equipment is a major consumer of many precious and special metals and therefore an important contributor to the world’s demand for metals. Besides the direct impact of effective recycling on the resource base of the recycled metals, recycling operation also considerably contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Primary production, i.e. mining, concentrating, smelting and refining, especially of precious and special metals has a significant carbon dioxide (CO2) impact due to the low concentration of these metals in the ores and often difficult mining conditions. “Mining” our old computers to recover the contained metals – if done in an environmentally sound or correct manner – needs only a fraction of energy compared to mining ores in nature. Furthermore, the environmentally sound management of refrigerators, air-conditioners and similar equipment is significant in mitigating the climate change impact at end-of-life. The ozone depleting substances in these devices, such as CFC and HCFCs, have a very high global warming potential and effective recycling will ensure these substances are not released into the environment. The environmental footprint of a fridge, a computer and other electronic devices could be significantly reduced if treated in environmentally sound managed recycling operations, which prevent hazardous emissions and ensure that a large part of the contained metals are finally recovered for a new life in a new (electronic) device. A wide range of components made of metals, plastics and other substances are contained in electrical and electronic equipment. For example, a mobile phone can contain over 40 elements from the periodic table including base metals like copper (Cu) and tin (Sn), special metals such as cobalt (Co), indium (In) and antimony (Sb), and precious metals including silver (Ag), gold (Au) and palladium (Pd), as shown in Figure 1. Metals represent on average 23% of the weight of a phone, the majority being copper, while the remainder is plastic and ceramic material. Looking at one ton of phone handsets (without battery) this would be 3.5 kg Ag, 340 g Au, 140 g Pd as well as 130 kg Cu. For a single unit the precious metal content is in the order of milligrams only: 250 mg Ag, 24 mg Au, 9 mg Pd while 9 g Cu is present on average. It means the natural resources exploitation can be lowered down just by focusing on recycling practices in e-waste.
Primary production (mining) plays the most important role in the supply of metals for electrical and electronic equipment applications since secondary metals (recycling) are only available in limited quantities so far. The environmental impact/footprint of the primary metal production is significant, especially for precious and special metals which are mined from ores in which the precious and special metal concentration is low. Considerable amounts of land are used for mining, waste water and sulfur dioxide (SO2) are created and the energy consumption and CO2 emissions are large. For example, to produce 1 ton of gold, palladium or platinum, CO2 emissions of about 10,000 tons are generated the annual demand for gold in EEE is some 300 t at average primary generation of almost 17,000 tons CO2 per ton of gold mined, which leads to gold induced emissions of 5.1 million tons in total In the case of copper, the specific primary emissions are with 3.4 t/t relatively low, but the high annual total demand in EEE leads to 15.3 million tons of CO2 emissions. As shown in Figure 3 (table) the cumulated values of the metals listed account for an annual CO2 emission level of 23.4 million tons, almost 1/1000 of the world’s CO2 emissions. This includes neither CO2 emissions from other metals used in electrical and electronic equipment like steel, nickel or aluminum, nor other CO2 emissions associated with the manufacturing or use of electrical and electronic equipment.
Why Recycle the Electronic Waste
- Electronic waste of TV, Computers, and Mobile phones contain many chemicals and materials that are hazardous to the environment, recycling reduces the possibility of danger.
- Electronic waste contains many precious metals and recycling process extract those metals and eventually release pressures on natural resources.
- India informal sectors are involved in crude practices that make heavy loss of precious metals that might be recovered through formal recycling.
- Recycling also ensures the data protection in case of ICT products are recycled.
- One of direct outcomes of recycling is creation of jobs in Recycling sectors.