The Global e-waste monitor, a joint report published by the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) estimates that in 2017 total e-waste output reached 44,7 million tonnes (mt). Only 20% of this waste was recycled through appropriate channels. By 2021, according to that same report, e-waste volumes are expected to skyrocket to 52,2 mt.
E-waste refers to any refuse created by discarded electronic devices and components as well as substances involved in their manufacture or use. Toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants (used in circuit boards, for instance) are employed in manufacturing these devices and components. If they are not properly recycled when discarded, these toxic substances can seep into the environment and may contaminate land, water and the air. When not recycled through standardized procedures, e-waste is buried underground in a landfill or burnt in an incinerator. Both will cause environmental pollution.
Global and regional action
Countries around the world have recognized the need for global action by signing different international agreements designed to regulate e-waste. They include The Basel Convention which aims to control trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which sets target dates for the phasing out of products which may contain mercury, such as batteries, switches and compact fluorescent lamps.
Many other agreements or declarations of intent have been drawn up at national level. Several are based on the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR) which encourages producers to manage the waste generated by their products that are out on the market.
In 2001, Japan started to adopt a new legal framework aimed at providing safer and more effective waste management, following the three Rs principle: reduce, reuse and recycle. Five industry-specific laws were adopted based on EPR. They include a home appliance recycling law (HARL), which concerns products such as air conditioners, refrigerators, television sets and washing machines. In Japan, EPR is compatible with a shared responsibility approach in which everyone bears the burden of waste management: citizens, businesses, municipalities and the national government. For example under HARL, retailers collect end-of-life products, consumers pay the expenses mandated for recycling and transport and producers recycle the collected products. For producers, take-back is mandatory.
The system has helped to forge a culture of recycling in manufacturing plants. Examples include mass recycling of the rare earth metals used in the nickel-metal batteries for the hybrid cars produced by a leading automotive manufacturer.
In 2017, China adopted a new EPR plan which set targets for the e-waste recycling rate to reach 50% by 2025. The plan requires producers to adhere to environmental protection standards throughout the life of their products, rather than just focus on the manufacturing process. It will initially concern electronics, automobiles, lead acid batteries and packing products.
The latest e-waste legislation of the European Union is its 2012 directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). This was implemented by member states in 2014.
In developing countries, informal collection of e-waste is widespread. Backyard recycling, as it is sometimes called, can cause severe damage to the environment and human health. Crude techniques include open burning to extract metals, acid leaching for precious metals and unprotected melting of plastics. While a growing number of these countries are adopting e-waste legislation, the effectiveness of enforcement and even the type of e-waste collected and recycled varies considerably.
The need for International Standards
Meeting the requirements of International Standards is one of the ways to ensure electrical and electronic products comply with regional and international regulations on e-waste. The IEC is leading the way through the work of several IEC Technical Committees (TCs).
IEC TC 111 focuses on the overall environmental impact of electronic and electrical products throughout their whole life cycle: from raw material acquisition to the manufacture, distribution, use, maintenance, re-use and recycling of their component parts. One of its key publications is IEC 62430, a horizontal Standard which specifies the requirements for integrating environmental aspects into the design and development processes of electrical and electronic products. TC 111 is in close liaison with various IEC product-based TCs which deal autonomously with the environmental aspects relevant to their products. For instance, IEC TC 107: Process management for avionics, prepares Standards which mitigate the use of tin and lead in avionics.
IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components, launched the hazardous substances process management (HSPM) scheme which provides third party certification for manufacturers who comply with the relevant national regulations in each country. One of the IEC’s advisory committees, ACEA (Advisory Committee on Environmental Aspects), considers all the environmental protection aspects that relate to the detrimental effect of a product, group of products or a system using electrical technology, including electronics and telecommunications. It helps to coordinate IEC work on environmental issues to ensure consistency and avoid duplication in IEC International Standards. ACEA activities are focused on issues that relate to eco-design and more specifically to substance management, end of life treatment and environmental labelling.
Urban mining under the spotlight
Rare earth elements are used in the production of electronic goods for which there is a growing or continuous demand. These include mobile phones, LED television sets, electric vehicles (EVs) and oxygen sensors.
An increasing number of companies and initiatives view cities as a “mine” from which rare earth materials can be reclaimed. According to the urban mining philosophy, materials are only temporarily used in buildings, industrial facilities, mobile phones or computers. After they have served their purpose, they can be recycled and reused in other products. Scrap material can be recovered from existing utilities, infrastructure and landfills to create a market in secondary raw materials worth EUR 55 bn, according to UN estimates.
Reusing materials carries the added advantage of being less polluting, as conventional mining for rare earths often involves high levels of toxicity. For example, a scheme developed at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, centres on a method of physically crushing and grinding discarded LED bulbs to extract metals including rare earths. Researchers on the project state that “from the LED itself, we can recover copper and small amounts of rare earth metals including lutetium, cerium, europium and the technology metals gallium and indium”. The researchers admit that “urban mining, even at its most efficient, can probably only meet about a quarter of the current demand for metals, but it can complement traditional mining and do the environment good at the same time”. In the long run, their aim is to limit the exposure of communities to potentially toxic materials and reach the elusive target of zero waste.