E-waste is unlike other recylable materials
Recycling electronic components is a more complex and far reaching issue than recycling for other materials. It is about more than just reducing carbon footprints or eliminating waste in landfills. In addition to environmental concerns, e-waste recycling has far reaching social and geopolitical implications.
Two isses make e-waste recyling unique:
First, electronic components often are made with rare earth materials that can be toxic when put in a landfill. The EPA estimates that less than 20% of electronic waste is recycled. The remaining portion is placed in landfills and can leak toxic lead, chloride, and mercury into our soil and water.
The second reason this that recycling electronics is so important is geopolitical in nature. China produces 95% of rare earth metals needed for electronics. This means that every electronic component that is discarded contributes to a growing dependence on Chinese mining. In the current economic climate and supply chain crisis, any rare earth metals that can be reused here in the United States, desperately need to be.
What are the industry leaders doing to help?
Increasing the use of recyled materials
Dell is one of the leaders in using recycled materials in electronic components. In 2014 they made the first computer from entirely recycled materials. Although not economically viable for mass production, they do use 30% recycled materials in their consumer products. They have set the goal to have 100% of packaging and over 50% of products use recycled or renewable materials by 2030.
Building out recycling infrastructures
Some manufacturers with large resources are taking the other approach and building out the recycling infrastructure. Apple products do not include a lot of recycled materials, but they do have the most impressive recycling program in the industry. Apple’s recycling program allows users to drop off electronic components of any brand, not just Apple, for recycling. To make it even easier, they have added an online return service where they partner with local logistics companies to pick up electronic waste. Apple has gone as far as creating a recycling robot, affectionately named “Daisy”, that can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year. In 2018 they diverted 48,000 metric tons of e-waste from landfills.
What does the future hold?
We should expect a large increase in use of recycled peripherals. The demand for more socially responsible products will converge with a lack of supply of electronic components to create a huge market. Global electronic recycling market is expected to reach $65.8 Billion by the year 2026. Plastic that is primarily used in the peripheral equipment like mice and keyboards represents about a quarter of that market. The electronics distributors we represent at Nufactur already are heavily invested in marketing towards greener electronic components. The demand for recycled electronic components is obvious at the consumer level, so the manufacturers are racing to meet the supply.