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Getting to the truth about e-waste

In our recent article wishcycling won’t save planet we explored some of the myths peddled by corporations when it comes to recycling. It argued that ‘our personal behaviour is not the main culprit’, rather it is the inaction of the plastics industry, which spends large amounts of money convincing people that ‘if they do the right thing it will be recycled’ that should be labelled the prime suspect. Similar types of corporate misdirection are being found in the world of e-waste recycling, with researchers from the Hypothetical Materials Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, proposing how this particular problem should be dealt with. 

In 2019, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally, a rise of 21% in five years, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020, which predicts that by 2030 it will increase to 74Mt. The world’s ‘fastest-growing domestic waste stream’ is triggering a major health and environmental crisis, with ‘toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury damaging the human brain and coordination system’.

If our technology is going to be sustainable, it’s important that we understand the barriers to e-waste recycling

“Electronics have huge environmental impacts across their life cycle, from mining rare raw materials to the energy-intensive manufacturing, all the way to the complicated e-waste stream,” said Christopher Wilmer, the William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, who leads the Hypothetical Materials Lab. “A circular economy model is well-suited to mitigating each of these impacts, but less than 40% of e-waste is currently estimated to be reused or recycled. If our technology is going to be sustainable, it’s important that we understand the barriers to e-waste recycling.”

Corporate claims about doing the right thing on e-waste are often found to be untrue, with it routinely dumped in landfill, or shipped to other countries, instead of being recycled. Using GPS trackers the Basel Action Network discovered that 30% of electronics sent to U.S. recyclers was shipped overseas between 2014-2016. It is a similar story for plastics. For plastic waste globally, 70% of it used to end up in China until they banned imports in 2018. Malaysia remains a dumping ground for plastics though, with large scale operations illegally incinerating and burning them, causing respiratory problems in citizens, especially in children and the elderly.

“The main barrier to honest recycling is its cost,” said lead author Daniel Salmon, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “One of our main findings is that if we find a way to make it more profitable for companies to recycle, we will have less dishonest recycling. Targeted subsidies, higher penalties for fraud and manufacturers ensuring their electronics are more easily recyclable are all things that could potentially solve this problem.”

The Pittsburgh researchers have developed a framework to establish a robust e-waste recycling culture, which could incorporate blockchain as a ‘neutral, third-party supervision to avoid fraudulent recycling practices’.

“Our model mentions the influence of monitoring and supervision, but self-reporting by companies enables dishonesty. On the other hand, something like the blockchain does not,” added Wilmer, who founded Ledger, the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrency. “Relying on an immutable record may be one solution to prevent fraud and align behaviors across recyclers toward a circular economy.”

Circular economy

United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Environment, and Founder and Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, Bertrand Piccard successfully co-piloted the first ever round-the-world solar powered flight, with André Borschberg, in the now iconic Solar Impulse plane in 2016. Since then his worldwide travels have been in pursuit of 1000 innovative solutions that can ‘protect the environment in a profitable way’. That number has now been surpassed and one of the solutions, pioneered by Canada’s Pyrocycle, is using an environmentally friendly thermochemical process for recycling e-waste without the need for toxic emissions or landfill, and it closes the loop by ‘turning scrap phones and PCs into valuable resources’. The circular economy is bringing forward a number of these solutions that can help pave the way for businesses to more easily pursue a people and planet over profit ethos.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says the circular economy must be ‘based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems’. And the Foundation is now leading the way in measuring circularity progress using Circulytics 2.0, which it labels the ‘most comprehensive circularity measurement tool’ available.

Explaining the potential of Circulytics, and a fully functioning circular economy, Jarkko Havas, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Insights & Analysis work around data and metrics, joined Marc Buckley recently on the Inside Ideas podcast.

Jarko talks to Marc about the inextricable links between climate change and the way ‘we use and produce materials’ and says it is critical companies are able to properly monitor how they are doing in making these materials in a more circular way.

“We want to ensure companies report in the future on their circular economy performance to show how they are acting to have these positive impacts,” he said.

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Written By

Iain is an experienced writer, journalist and lecturer, who held editorships with a number of business focussed publications before co-founding and becoming editor of Innovators Magazine. Iain is also the strategic director for OnePoint5Media.

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