23rd Science Apéro

Raw material recovery from electronic waste – a businessopportunity

Apr 29, 2005 | LUKAS DENZLER
Computers, mobile telephones and consumer electronics – these little miracles of modern technology have become an inseparable part of our daily life. But these devices, packed as they are full of the latest in electronics, are giving rise to enormous quantities of waste. The handling of electronic waste and the problems its presents both for industry and in some developing countries were the focus of a Science Apéro at the Empa Academy in Duebendorf.
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Recycling electronic waste in Switzerland (immark ag, above).
 

Many people immediately think of computers when the words “electronic waste” are mentioned. After all, by the time you have learnt to use a computer effectively, the operating system has become obsolete and it is time to think of buying a newer, even faster system! But according to Lorenz Hilty, the Head of Empa’s Technology and Society Laboratory in St. Gall, even simple household equipment such as a coffee machine or vacuum cleaner contains an increasing amount of electronics. In Switzerland, about ten kilos of electronic waste is generated annually per head on average. Worldwide, the yearly sales of electronic goods are estimated to be 35 million tons. “In addition to harmful products, electronic waste contains valuable raw materials such as precious metals and other scarce substances,” Prof. Hilty informed the audience during his presentation. In a laptop computer, for example, there is about a gram of gold. This does not sound like much, but to produce the same quantity from a gold mine involves digging out and processing about one ton of ore. The primary challenge faced when dealing with electronic waste lies therefore not in disposal but rather in finding ways of recovering the valuable basic materials it contains.

Successful Swiss model
Yvonne Vögeli, from the BUWAL, the Swiss Federal Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape, reported on the Swiss recycling model for electronic waste. In Switzerland, legislation covering the disposal of electronic waste (VREG) has been in force since 1998. This stipulates that electrical and electronic equipment may not be disposed of with household waste. The aim of these regulations is to reduce the amount of problematic material being delivered to waste incineration plants and to encourage the recovery of recyclable metals. With effect from January 1st 2005 the list covered by the legislation was expanded and all sales outlets were obliged to take back old electronic equipment free of charge. This collection and recycling system, which covers the whole country, is financed by a prepaid recycling charge levied on new equipment introduced on a voluntary basis by the electronics branch. According to Yvonne Vögeli collection rates are significantly higher in Switzerland than in other European countries. She attributes this to, amongst other factors, the successful interplay between regulation and voluntary implementation and the fact that the system in use is simple and consumer-friendly.

Backyard recycling in developing countries
The export of electronic waste from Switzerland is subject to permission from the BUWAL, the aim being to prevent unregulated dumping abroad. However developing countries suffer not only from the effects of illegally imported electronic waste – countries such as India and China also produce enormous quantities of waste themselves, a consequence of the very rapid growth of their economies.

 
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Recycling electronic waste in India.
 

The greater part of this “homegrown” waste equipment is dismantled and processed in backyard businesses, creating a high level of risk for health and the local environment. The Empa’s Rolf Widmer has been tasked with investigating this “informal” business sector in China, India and South Africa by the Swiss government’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco). Estimates indicate that about 10,000 persons earn their living by this means in New Delhi, India, alone. “The actual recycling process work astonishingly well,” reports Widmer. “Hardly any of the electronics ends up in the household waste.”

 

The main problem lies in the fact that some of the recycling processes are very problematic from a health point of view. It is necessary to identify these processes and ensure that they are performed in a proper industrial environment. “This is hardly likely to happen through legislation alone,” Widmer is convinced. What is required is an adequate incentive to ensure that it is no longer worthwhile carrying out this dangerous work in backyard workshops.

Ever smaller, ever smarter
Today most electronic equipment can be dismantled with a reasonable amount of effort. During the discussion following the presentations, a member of the audience called for manufacturers to take into account of the need for recycling during the production stage. However, in reality new developments are moving in another direction. Electronic products are becoming ever smaller and it is foreseeable that in future ever more items of our daily life could contain minute microchips, a trend known as “pervasive computing”. Lorenz Hilty maintains that “Not only will the amount of electronics increase with these smart devices, but it will also become ever more difficult and resource-consuming to separate electronic components from household rubbish and deliver them to a recycling facility.”


Author
Lukas Denzler, Dipl. Forst-Ing. ETH and freelance journalist, Zurich

Contact for more technical information
Prof. Lorenz Hilty, Technology and Society Laboratory, Tel. 071 274 7345,