It’s no secret that electronics are getting both smaller and more complex. While electronics manufacturers may have started the trend with the introduction of the iPhone 10 years ago, the desires of consumers for fully-integrated, multi-functional, smaller products are now driving the market. With consumers happy with the direction in which electronics technology is going, the challenges for the electronics recycling sector are increasing as technology evolves.
As a result of continuing technological advances, electronic recyclers are currently in a challenging position. It is difficult for them to determine what the waste stream will look like (and thus determine its particular recycling requirements) even a year or two from now, let alone a longer period of time.
Use of Plastic in Electronics Is Increasing
One major change that electronic recyclers are facing is the increasing use of plastic over metal in electronic items.
“Plastic is hard to separate during the recycling process because there are so many different polymers,” says Gary Diamond, CEO, Quantum.
There are two major barriers to the reuse or recycling of plastic in e-waste, namely the mixed plastic content and the presence of flame retardants. A new study by the Illinois Sustainability Technology Center and published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering suggests a way to deal with the first problem: mixed plastic polymers are dissolved in a solvent, which is then evaporated to leave the polymers behind.
Precious Metal Content in Electronics Is Going Down
A second challenge encountered by electronics recyclers is that manufacturers are trying to reduce the costs of production while making items lighter and smaller. This is resulting in fewer precious metals and more plastic being used in electronics.
The downsizing of electronics and the desire of manufacturers to save money has led to less gold and palladium being used in favour of precious metals such as tantalum, for example, that have a lower value. As the size of items has shrunk, it’s harder to get the precious metals out of a smaller volume.
“There are some really interesting metals in electronics such as the rare earths but the traditional recycling chain has not figured out how to extract them all yet,” says Diamond. “Plus, the traditional recycling chain deals with standard mixtures such as copper and gold, for example, but now we’re seeing mixtures with 20 or maybe 50 different metals. Electronics recycling is becoming all about how to separate out those metals.”
Embedded Batteries Becoming More Prevalent in Electronics
A third challenge for e-waste recyclers is the increasing use of embedded batteries in smaller electronic devices and the need for more labour to deal with their removal. Embedded batteries, which are toxic, are glued into items with adhesive that can itself be toxic, forcing recyclers to come in contact with the batteries to remove them before shredding. The additional labour and potential safety issues add to the cost of recycling items with embedded batteries.
The Future Could Be Bright for Electronics Recycling
Diamond says the bright side for electronics recycling is that there are more electronics being produced than ever. So, while each item may be less valuable to recycle, the overall volume of items makes up for the lowered value of each piece. In fact, he suggests that governments that fund recycling switch the focus from reimbursing by weight of recovered materials to reimbursing per electronic item recycled.
“We’re becoming more efficient at recycling electronics and increasing commodity yield through technological advancements,” says Diamond. “But who knows what the future holds? Could T-shirts become electronic items? Refrigerators will, for sure. Even solar panels can now be recycled. Will your cell phone be replaced by a contact lens in your eye? It’s the Internet of Things and we just can’t predict what direction electronics are going in.”
While no one knows what the future of electronics recycling will hold, there are lots of answers available today. If you have questions about your electronic items and how to recycle them or to schedule a free pickup, contact Quantum.