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Unlocking The Hidden Value In Everyday E-Waste

Countries worldwide produce millions, even billions of tons of mixed trash annually. In the United States alone, somewhere in the order of 268 million tons a year, around 6.9 million tons of old electronics (e-waste). The average American generates around 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of waste daily, most of which is recyclable.

Traditionally, household and commercial waste (depending on what it is) generally head to a landfill for disposal. Still, various strategies worldwide exist to incinerate or repurpose some of it where possible. But, with genuine concerns over dwindling precious resources for electronic raw materials, could we be on the verge of a true trash-to-treasure revolution? Let’s find out.

How is trash normally disposed of?

Most of the stuff we throw out is usually just chucked in a big hole and covered over. Centuries, even millennia old, this disposal method has led to serious environmental issues like water, soil, and air pollution, not to mention the proliferation of pests like rodents. However, modern landfills are now designed to minimize leachate contamination and methane emissions. Yet, despite this, landfilling is incredibly wasteful and consumes large tracts of land over time.

To help combat this, many countries have developed other ways to deal with waste to minimize the amount we bury away for future generations to worry about. One of those is incineration. This involves taking combustible elements of mixed or separate trash and, as the name suggests, setting it light under controlled conditions.

All is well and good, but if not properly managed, incineration can release harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases into the environment. Advanced incineration facilities, however, are usually designed to capture energy and minimize harmful emissions, making them more eco-friendly than older versions.

Another option is called waste-to-energy. Waste-to-energy technologies can convert waste materials into electricity, heat, or fuel. Some of these technologies include gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc gasification. These technologies aim to reduce the volume of waste while generating energy. However, their environmental and economic viability depends on the technology and waste stream used.

But, beyond the above and reduce/reuse strategies, other solutions have been found to deal with certain elements of waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill. This includes recycling, which typically involves collecting, sorting, and processing suitable materials, like certain plastics, glass, metal, paper, and electronics. However, this is not foolproof and can come with its own problems.

Organic materials are increasingly being composted at source (by households) or on more industrial scales at specialized facilities. The products can be used as rich-growth soil or fertilizer for agriculture. Another growing trend is the utilization of anaerobic digestion to break down organic waste without oxygen. This enables biogas production, which can be used as a fuel source for heat and power. This is becoming increasingly common for commercial and domestic premises where organic waste can be “recycled” for on-site biogas production for various uses like cooking.

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Trash transformed: Unlocking the hidden value in everyday e-waste
Lots of trash.

However, there is also an increasing trend to turn some elements of your trash into real treasure. Let’s dig a little deeper in the next section.

Can trash be turned into tech treasure?

It most certainly can. Things like “upcycling” aside, and regarding technology in isolation, various strategies are being explored in the public and private sectors to turn otherwise discarded end-of-life products into new, valuable resources (like refined metal ingots) and other new items. Such strategies prevent non-biodegradable things from being buried underground, and they can offer exciting ways to reduce reliance on the extraction and refinement of raw resources like metal ores.

The latter is significant as many materials used within modern electronic devices are very costly to the environment to extract and process. For example, one common raw material used in modern electronics is precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum. They are superb electrical conductors and tend to be very corrosion-resistant. However, they are costly as they are scarce elements (hence their inherent use for wealth preservation and jewelry).

Some commonly used resources include rare Earth elements such as neodymium, dysprosium, and terbium. These elements are essential for producing solid magnets in hard drives, speakers, and coloring screens. Although they are called rare Earth elements, they are available in relatively large quantities. However, they are usually found in very low concentrations, which makes their extraction and use economically challenging.

Besides the above, base metals like copper, aluminum, tin, glass, ceramics, and crude oil for plastics and polymers are ubiquitous in old tech. Using “new” raw resources is costly to the planet, and chucking them away is a waste. In all cases, the extraction of metals (precious or otherwise) and other raw materials can result in habitat destruction, pollution, energy consumption, water contamination, and, in some cases, hazardous chemicals.

For this reason, many experts believe it is private that different ways be found to recover these resources to help reduce our dependence on “virgin” sources like ores.

What are the benefits of trash to treasure?

We’ve touched on this above, but if ways can be found to reuse resources that have already “paid the price,” so to speak, to be mined and refined, then there are obvious immediate gains to be made regarding their “hidden costs,” like environmental damage.

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Promoting the recycling of electronic waste and using recycled materials in new products is essential to reduce the environmental impact of the electronics industry. This approach helps conserve natural resources and reduces energy consumption, pollution, and waste, thus contributing to a more sustainable and circular economic model.

Trash transformed: Unlocking the hidden value in everyday e-waste
An open pit mine.

So, what interesting ways have been found to do this? Let’s take a look at some interesting examples.

What companies are doing it?

Sustainable technology startups are finding innovative ways to convert waste into valuable resources while addressing environmental concerns. Around the world, private and public ventures worldwide are creating inventive solutions to recycle electronic waste (e-waste), including discarded electronic devices such as smartphones, computers, and TVs.

Since we are discussing treasure, some companies focus on extracting precious metals from e-waste. These innovative organizations aim to extract valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper, and rare Earth metals from e-waste and use them to produce new electronic components or devices. For instance, companies like EcoATM provide kiosks that allow consumers to recycle their old smartphones for cash, and the retrieved materials are repurposed in manufacturing new devices. Talk about “money for old rope.”

Several other startups have decided to concentrate on recycling plastic waste into 3D printing filament, a type of plastic used by 3D printers to create objects. By transforming plastic waste into a valuable manufacturing resource, these companies are reducing plastic pollution and fulfilling the growing demand for 3D printing materials.

Reflow and Filabot are examples of startups transforming plastic bottles, containers, and other forms of waste into high-quality 3D printing filaments. Others, like UBQ Materials, are developing ways to transform household waste, including all organics, into a sustainable, bio-based material that can substitute for conventional plastic.

Other organizations are currently investigating waste-to-energy technologies to create electricity, heat, or fuel from different types of waste. This helps reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and provides a renewable energy source. For instance, companies like Enerkem are converting municipal solid waste into biofuels and chemicals, thereby highlighting the potential of waste as a valuable resource for energy production.

Other examples include TerraCycle, which specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle waste and offers a range of free and paid recycling programs for individuals and companies. Another, Renewlogy, converts plastic waste into fuel through chemical recycling, aiming to reduce plastic pollution.

Yet others, like Ecovative Design, focus on creating eco-friendly materials from mycelium (fungus roots), such as packaging and building materials, to reduce dependency on synthetic plastics and decrease environmental impact.

So, there might be something to the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” after all.

Source: IE

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