A New Way to Process e-waste

Is there something wrong with a world where more people own cell phones than have access to running water? That statistic makes me aware that we, as a global community, need to work to provide more people with safe running water, and also that the production of consumer electronics contributes to the toxic environments in which many people in the world live. Beyond production of electronics, we need consider their disposal. As we ship our electronic waste (e-waste) to China and other countries where environmental regulations aren’t as stringent as they are in North America and Europe, we are subjecting workers to toxins and perhaps also leaching those toxins into their communities’ water supplies. What can and should we do about this?

 Photograph from Xia Huo, Shantou University, China

Photograph from Xia Huo, Shantou University, China

No one is going to convince smart phone manufacturers to stop coming up with new phones and implementing a marketing strategy designed to convince consumers that they must buy a new phone every year or two. Planned obsolescence is something we have to live with, like it or not. I probably sound old when I say that I remember a time when products were designed to last more than a few years, but I know that even some of today’s young adults feel guilty about discarding perfectly good products just because something better comes along. The concept of reduce, reuse, recycle that started in the 1970s and then went out of fashion during my teenage years is returning with renewed enthusiasm.

Last week I heard a presentation by Peter Holgate, CEO of Ronin8, a Canadian company addressing the problem of recycling consumer electronics in a way that helps the environment while also providing a revenue stream for his company. Holgate is originally from South Africa, and is very familiar with the mining industry there, which led him to an unusual approach to e-waste that reclaims metals and plastics from printed circuit boards (PCBs). Ronin8’s technology appears to be unique. It involves grinding up PCBs and subjecting them to sonic vibrations in order to separate out the various materials. This low-temperature process stands in contrast to traditional e-waste recycling, which involves burning off the plastics in order to recover the metals and creates toxic fumes in the process. 

Ronin8 has a closed loop system, meaning that all the solvents (mostly water) are recycled to be used in the next batch and the process creates no waste stream. Precious metals – gold, silver, platinum – and rare earth metals like europium and neodymium are separated out and reclaimed, ready to be sold for use in the next generation of electronics. The reclaimed metals are even purer than virgin supplies may be, and using them decreases the amount of mining required to meet our insatiable demand for new electronic gadgets. The plastics in the PCBs, though not as valuable in terms of cost per ounce, are also recycled.

This seems like a winning scenario that I believe manufacturers of consumer electronics should embrace and encourage. They can get brownie points on the green business scale for recycling their products, in a way that has no negative impact on productivity or profit and may have a positive impact. If consumers understand that their old electronics will be processed in a manner that reuses as many materials as possible while not endangering vulnerable populations, they may well be more likely to turn them in and perhaps more likely to buy from manufacturers that have a well-publicized take-back program that uses a responsible recycling process.