Within recent decades, electronic waste (“e-waste”) has become a growing concern across the globe. E-waste is projected to increase by 30% by 2030, with the potential for it to double by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario. Both regulatory changes and ESG initiatives pursued by corporations are driving change to stop these realities from taking hold. Yet, to prevent disastrous implications, the e-waste challenge must be viewed as an immediate emergency and not a far-off possibility. Fortunately, there are several innovations in e-waste and recycling technology that could fuel positive change — here are a few of the most promising possibilities.
E-waste innovations & recycling technologies that are driving sustainability
Minimizing the impact of e-waste in landfills with dissolvable batteries
Batteries are among the most challenging electronics to dispose of responsibly. When left in landfills, they present serious risks including thermal runaway. In this phenomenon, batteries overheat and become unstable, potentially leading to explosions. To address environmental concerns around batteries, researchers at Iowa State University have been investigating a technology that could allow lithium ion batteries to dissolve within water in minutes. This quicker, more controlled process could make e-waste recycling safer both for people and the environment.
Implementing AI in the e-waste stream for efficient processing
Recently, researchers have also been working to develop and deploy software that would enable AI-powered robots to identify different types of smartphones as they’re processed through the waste stream. Ideally, the robots would also be able to remove components such as batteries and valuable parts for recycling. This would ultimately address the tedious and time-consuming aspects of smartphone recycling that make it so challenging, potentially allowing more phone components to be recycled successfully and preventing dangerous materials like rare earth metals from entering ecosystems.
Leveraging chemistry to aid in e-waste recycling
Chemists are also keeping pace with evolving technology in the rush to find more sustainable e-waste recycling solutions, including the exploration of natural approaches to e-waste processing. In Austria, researchers are experimenting with using bacteria and algae to separate rare earth metals from electronics via a unique biorecycling method. Likewise, a clean tech firm in New Zealand is grinding scrap metal from e-waste into a sand-like consistency, then using a biorefining process with microbes to extract gold which can then be repurposed. Experts have also been investigating the thermochemical process of pyrolysis to recover metals and polymers from e-waste. Further research will be needed to determine if the emissions produced during this process will pose an environmental risk and thus outweigh any benefits.
Clearly, e-waste is a complex problem that demands creative solutions. Quantum is committed to staying at the forefront of e-waste research and implementing feasible solutions as they emerge. Find out more about how we facilitate sustainability and can help reduce your carbon impact here.