The rapid expansion of technology, linked to a consumer-driven society, has created explosive growth in the electronics industry. In turn, this has led to a rapidly escalating issue of end-of-life electronics or e-waste.


By 2021, 50 million tonnes of e-waste - obsolete computers, laptops, monitors, keyboards, copiers, VCRs, fax machines, cell phones, printers, scanners, hard drives, stereo equipment, cables and cords, shredders, microwaves, and more - are likely to be generated. Mobile phones alone will account for around 10% of this. 


Many of the devices mentioned above contain toxic materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs), for example, contain high concentrations of lead and phosphors, and are deemed "hazardous household waste”. If consigned to landfills or primitive recycling procedures, these toxic materials can find their way into groundwater, soil, and air, affecting both land and sea animals.






With e-waste now, the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, the safe recycling of electronics is receiving increased attention from policymakers, industry, and consumers alike. Nevertheless, it is thought that at present only around 15-20% of e-waste is recycled in a safe and proper manner. 


We spoke in a previous article about the unscrupulous exporting of hazardous waste to developing countries, principally in Africa and Asia, and nowhere is this more an issue than with e-waste - currently, 50%–80% of e-waste that recyclers collect is exported overseas. This uncontrolled movement of e-waste to countries where cheap labor and primitive approaches to recycling have resulted in health risks to residents exposed to the release of toxins and this continues to be of serious concern. "Many thousands of tonnes find their way around the world to be pulled apart by hand or burned by the world’s poorest workers," the World Economic Forum notes. "This crude form of urban mining has consequences for people’s wellbeing and creates untold pollution.”


China, previously a prime importer, is now cracking down on imports of e-waste for recycling and this is placing increasing pressure on the EU, the US, Australia, and Japan to find solutions of their own.


The safe recycling of e-waste is starting to be seen as a potential source of great reward. Most electronic devices contain elements of precious metal and it has been estimated that the recycling of one million cell phones can recover 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 35,274 pounds of copper, and 33 pounds of palladium. Indeed, Apple revealed that it recovered 2,204 pounds of gold, worth $40 million, from recycled iPhones, Macs, and iPads in 2015. 


Most electronic devices contain elements of precious metal

One million cell phones can recover 75 pounds of gold


Despite this, only 10-15% of gold, for example, in e-waste is successfully recovered, with the rest lost. Ironically, according to the United Nations, the electronic waste contains deposits of precious metal estimated to be between 40 and 50 times richer than ores mined from the earth. 


Electronics recycling is a challenge; sophisticated electronic devices are made from varying proportions of glass, metals, and plastics, and the recycling process differs depending on the materials being recycled and the technologies employed. Additionally, many products are made in ways that make them not easily recyclable, with their design often undertaken for proprietary reasons without consideration for the environment. Nevertheless, early recycling practitioners are beginning to emerge - usually small entrepreneurial firms who are aware of the scale of the e-waste problem.


The basis of economically viable electronics recycling is an efficient separation of materials. E-waste needs to be shredded, often into pieces as small as 100mm, to facilitate the sorting and separation of plastics, metals, and internal circuitry. New technologies are becoming available, including the use of robots to identify and separate useful parts. Apple, for example, in attempting to counter criticisms that its phones are difficult to recycle, has developed a robot that can disassemble up to 200 iPhones per hour, handling nine different models of the phone.


E-waste needs to be shredded

Circuit boards are punctured and shredded



There is no doubt, in our mind, that efficient recycling of e-waste offers potential business opportunities as well as being necessary for the planet’s sustainability. As individuals, we should ensure we dispose of obsolete electronic devices in a safe manner; as business people, we should consider the opportunities that e-waste recycling may offer.