E-waste, the process of recycling usable metals and materials from discarded technology for reuse, is becoming increasingly prevalent.
Disused and obsolete technologies, from phones and TVs to computers and radios, can contain trace elements of precious metals that would otherwise go to waste.
In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated globally, and just three countries — China, the US and Japan — were responsible for over one third of that (at 7.2, 6.2 and 2.14Mt, respectively).
Adding in India, Germany and the United Kingdom pushes it up to nearly half, at 47 per cent. Of this 44.7Mt total, only 8.9Mt were collected and recycled, representing a growing waste problem.
Apple is one company who has expressed commitment to e-waste recycling, hoping to establish a closed loop supply chain for aluminium, tungsten, tin and copper in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, which related to the company’s 2016 fiscal year.
“For some materials, sourcing recycled content will be sufficient as long as we ensure the same amount is recovered, recycled, and put back on the market,” said the report.
“Where recycled content isn’t available at the desired quality, we can drive improvements in recycling technologies and a tighter closed loop —such as using material from old Apple devices to build new ones.
“And when there are materials for which recycling technologies don’t yet exist, we’ll need to invest in research and other technology solutions.”
The company created a prototype robot dubbed LIAM, a relatively inexpensive ($US200,000) project developed in just six months. Currently in beta, the robot is able to break down an iPhone into around 61 constituent parts in just 19 seconds.
“It’s a disruptive change we can learn from,” said Barrick Gold chief innovation officer Michelle Ash at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne last year.
“One of the wonderful things about the technology businesses are creating is that it can show us how to do things cheaply and fast — in the mining industry I bet that would’ve cost $2 million and three years to create.”
The CIO noted that Apple’s project was part of a growing consumer-led trend for products with greater “cradle-to-grave” recycling potential, and that while LIAM represented a small start — Apple using about 6500 tonnes of copper and 1 million ounces of gold a year — it was still a significant one.
In 2015, the electronics giant’s European headquarters in Cork became the first outside North America to receive safety organisation UL’s prestigious Zero Waste to Landfill validation, though it is worth noting that ‘zero waste to landfill’ and ‘zero waste’ are not entirely synonymous.
So how can these concepts be applied on a wider scale? A Canadian company may have the answer. Vancouver-based EnviroLeach Technologies is currently researching a new water-based leaching solution, designed as a potential substitute for current cyanide-based solutions that could be useful for large-scale e-waste extraction.
By mixing pulverised e-waste with laced water, then pumping the solution through diamond plates and applying electricity, gold and other precious ores can be extracted from the solution for reuse.
The company has entered into a joint venture with electronics company Jabil to open a 60,000 square metre processing plant in Tennessee for this purpose, starting at five tonnes of waste a day.
“This solution operates at ambient temperatures, and there is no off-gassing from cyanide or hot acids,” said EnviroLeach chief executive officer Duane Nelson. “It has a neutral pH, so it will not eat plant equipment. And you do not have to invest in water treatment since, unlike alternatives, you aren’t discharging dissolved metals into a wastewater treatment system.”
Closer to home, noted University of New South Wales professor Veena Sahajwalla has developed micro-factories for just such a purpose, extracting copper and tin-based alloys from disused circuit boards via exothermic reactions.
“A tonne of mobile phones (about 6000 handsets), for example, contains about 130kg of copper, 3.5kg of silver, 340 grams of gold and 140 grams of palladium, worth tens of thousands of dollars,” she explained in 2016.
“’Mining’ our waste stockpiles makes sense for both the economy and the environment.”