In recent years, the consumer demand for electronics has escalated to a great degree. Consumers today prefer buying a new gadget instead of repairing an old one. This trend has played a major part in the global e-waste crisis.
As per a United Nations Environment Program report, the American electronics industry alone produced about 42 million tonnes of e-waste in 2014!
Why Recycle E-waste
Electronic waste contains many valuable metals. On recycling 1 million cell phones, 35,274 lbs (16,000 kg) copper, 772 lbs (350.1 kg) of silver, 75 lbs (34 kg) of gold and 33 lbs (14.9 kg) of palladium can be recovered. However, according to EPA, only 12.5% of e-waste is recycled. The reason behind such a small fraction being recycled is the presence of toxins and complex compounds.
E-waste from developed nations are exported to developing economies where these precious metals are recovered via hand processing. This method poses a health hazard as it exposes the poor communities to harmful toxins.
The Potential Solution
To combat the global problem of e-waste, a professor from University of New South Wales has found an ingenious method that allows extraction of valuable metals without putting poor communities in danger.
UNSW ARC Laureate, Professor Veena Sahajwalla is the brains behind this breakthrough. She has developed micro-factories that offer a safe and low-cost method for mining electronic waste. These micro-factories can be set-up in containers and transported to waste sites, negating the need to transport e-waste over long distances. As a result, the high transportation costs are avoided.
She says, “The world urgently needs a safe, low cost recycling solution for e-waste. Our approach is to enable every local community to transform their e-waste into valuable metal alloys, instead of leaving old devices in drawers or sheds, or sending them to landfill.”
Professor Veena Sahajwalla uses programmed drones to identify printed circuit boards from crushed e-waste. To avoid human contact, a simple robot extracts them before they are dropped into the furnace.
Then, the micro-factories use precisely controlled high-temperature reactions to create copper and tin-based alloys from unwanted printed circuit broads. During the process, toxins are destroyed at the same time.
“We already understand the value of sourcing green energy from the sun, similarly we can source valuable green materials from our waste. ‘Mining’ our waste stockpile makes sense for both the economy and the environment,” she adds.