Thursday, 18th february 2021 | Circular economy
Marco Arezio - Consulente materie plastiche - Electronic Waste: a Supply Chain with Many Unknowns and Speculations

Electronic waste is that mass of commonly used products such as household appliances, mobile phones, televisions, computers and many other objects that reach, more or less quickly , a condition of obsolescence, desired by producers or by fashion or due to technical breakages, in an increasingly rapid time.

Unlike plastic, glass, made of metal, paper or fabrics, electronic waste is an articulated complex of components of various nature and origin which makes it, in itself, a complicated object for recycling.

Furthermore, an electronic object contains many dangerous chemicals and which, if not treated correctly, cause serious damage to the ecosystem and to the man.

There are many reasons to push on the industry of legal recycling of electronic equipment, among which we can include respect for the environment, the toxicity of some components that there are inside the equipment, which must be managed correctly and responsibly, but also the growing demand for noble materials by manufacturers for the construction of new devices.

Indeed, many rare minerals that are necessary for modern technologies come from countries that do not respect human rights.

To avoid unwittingly supporting armed conflicts and human rights violations, MEPs have adopted rules that impose on European importers of precious materials to carry out checks on the work cycle to ensure that there are no phenomena of exploitation of workers, pollution of the lands and reputation of suppliers. For this reason too, the growth of the legal recycling market in this sector is of particular importance.

If we wanted to make a ranking of which are the most common electronic waste we can say that large household appliances , such as washing machines and stoves electricity, are among the most collected and account for more than half of all electrical and electronic waste.

This is followed by IT and telecommunication equipment (laptops, printers), consumer equipment (cameras, fluorescent lamps) and photovoltaic panels as well as small household appliances (vacuum cleaners , toaster).

All other categories, such as power tools and medical devices, account for 7.2% of all electronic and electrical waste collected.

The recycling of electronic waste , although there are precious substances inside them such as copper, tin, gold, titanium, silver, aluminum remains completely insufficient in terms of recycled volumes,

than the annual production of new equipment. In 2017 alone, the UN estimated the mass of electronic waste at 50 million tons worldwide, of which 80% ended up in landfills.

What are the reasons why we recycle so little?

First of all the complexity of the luminaires, made up of many different elements from each other and the high quality standard, which requires the use of chemically complex raw materials, which would require the disassembly of the devices for a correct separation into constituent elements.

In reality, many appliances are not disassembled, especially the smaller ones, but ground and subsequently divided with the loss of many materials and the partial pollution of the recyclable elements.

We can say that only some manufacturers have started the withdrawal of their used products at the end of their life, like Apple for example, creating a completely clean waste stream from which it extracts the most precious materials including gold.

In addition, the pace of production and sale of devices, such as mobile phones, sees a change cycle of around 25% of the population every year. homes would have accumulated 500 million unusable appliances which account for the share of global electronic waste.

Recycling systems

The recovery of electronic device components takes place mainly through the processes of shredding and separation of the resulting ground, according to its nature.

Glass, plastic, metals and other minor products are separated by mechanical systems and by density, creating homogeneous families of waste that they can become new raw materials. Unfortunately, within an electronic device, a considerable amount of materials cannot be separated and recycled due to the complexity of the chemical recipes required during their production.

Due to these difficulties and the high recycling costs, currently between 60 and 80% of end-of-life electronic waste is sent to countries in the process of development, sometimes in a non-transparent way, where appliances are separated manually, with systems that entail enormous health and environmental problems in which the work takes place.

Many of the products that are sent for recycling or landfill are still valid and recent tools, but currently their constitution, structural and process for their operation, makes their repair difficult or uneconomical, at times deliberately impossible for producers , so as to create a driving force for new purchases and consequently an exponential increase in waste.

In a general perspective, this unbridled consumerism in which the life of the product is programmed to last as short as possible, creating a new purchase need, goes against all logic sustainability which the competent bodies must put a stop to.

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