Using waste electronics to increase the sustainability of metal supply

Published in Sustainability
Using waste electronics to increase the sustainability of metal supply
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The frequent use of electronic devices has been the symbol of the 21st century. As more and more electronics have been manufactured and sold to consumers, the accompanied waste stream has also been growing. Our recent study estimates that by the end of this decade over 1 billion small-to-mid-size electronic devices will be discarded annually in the U.S. alone.  If not properly recycled, the environmental and public health concerns associated with the waste electronics are detrimental. Unrecycled piles of waste electronics can lead to serious concerns such as heavy metal poisoning and food chain contamination of the surrounding environment.

Even so, it is extremely challenging to strategically recycle waste electronics. First of all, waste electronics are traded around the world between countries with different regulations and standards. This makes it challenging to quantify and regulate their flow. Second, the proper recycling of waste electronics requires specialized equipment for a series of treatments including dismantling and separating different resources, which are often not available in less developed countries where many old waste electronics end up.

Simply discarding electronics is also a lost opportunity as they contain various valuable resources, including metals, plastics, glasses, etc. For metals, most of the precious or critical metal supply comes from virgin mining, which is energy and carbon-intensive. Thus, the proper recycling of waste electronics not only circumvents the critical environmental issues their disposal can cause, but can contribute to the material supply chain as well. Especially considering today’s electronic chip shortage, recovering metal resources has become more appealing to increase supply chain resiliency. Namely for the United States (U.S.), recent initiatives such as the CHIPS and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act, are trying to increase the domestic manufacturing of electronics and semiconductors, and the regional sourcing of materials for manufacturing.

In our study, we explore the potential of integrating waste electronics as one of the metal supply streams in different regions of the U.S. Furthermore, we are interested in the effects of a recent surge of newer electronic devices that have entered the market, such as Internet-of-Things devices, AR/VR headsets, and electronic scooters, and establish as the material flow of electronic waste in the U.S. based on sales data for over 90 small-to-mid-size existing and emerging consumer electronics.

Using gold as a primary indicator, we estimate that the U.S. annually discards an amount of gold in waste electronics that could be comparable to its national annual production of gold from virgin mining.  We also find that, in general, the West and Mountain regions have more potential for integrating electronics with virgin refining, where more plants can be built for waste electronics refining. However, the results were heavily impacted by the metal composition, and we find it challenging to obtain accurate data on the tear-down compositions for gold and other metals within different electronics. Currently, numerous studies have been focused on developing innovative processes for electronics recycling, but they rely heavily on individual tear-down experiments to determine the quantities of metal resources for electronics, which are not practical for large-scale deployments.

In the future, we are looking to better quantify the economic potential of deploying these novel electronics recycling processes, narrow down uncertainties, and expand our study to include more recycled feedstocks for resources, such as rare earth elements that are critical for electronic manufacturing but have limited supply. Better regulations can help with our future qualifications. Especially, developing nationwide circularity data, and metal-level composition reports without interfering with intellectual properties for electronics manufacturing, could be beneficial, similar to the ones we have on food packaging. 

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