August 09, 2023

Electronic afterlife: Opportunities in global e-waste recycling

NexantECA -Electronic Afterlife: Opportunities in Global E-Waste Recycling

What is E-Waste? 

In today's fast-paced world, technology advances at an astonishing rate, rendering our electronic devices obsolete in the blink of an eye. E-waste, a realm where hidden fortunes and lurking dangers intertwine, is the world’s fastest growing and the most valuable waste stream. Within this rapidly growing waste stream lies a treasure trove valued at a staggering $62.5 billion USD, brimming with precious metals waiting to be mined. With less than 20 percent of global e-waste currently undergoing formal recycling, discarded electronic devices, once cherished and now non-functional or unwanted, hold the key to significant untapped potential. IT and Consumer Electronics stands as the primary focus within e-waste recycling. This includes electronic devices commonly found in corporate offices, schools, and households. Computers, tablets, servers, televisions, and cell phones hold the promise of being repaired and refurbished into fully functional devices, fetching prices that surpass the mere sum of their raw materials. 

This category of electronics not only has the potential for refurbishment but also serves as a concentrated source of precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum. Additionally, it contains other recyclable commodities such as glass and plastic. Approximately 60 percent of e-waste is comprised of valuable metals, while plastics make up 15 percent, and delicate glass components account for 12 percent. By recycling these electronics, we not only recover valuable resources but also contribute to the sustainable management of e-waste. 

However, amid the allure of riches, a hidden danger lurks. E-waste carries a dual identity, harboring hazardous chemicals like lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and beryllium. Safely recycling these valuable components becomes a complex and costly endeavor, necessitating careful handling to protect both the environment and human health. 


Informal E-Waste Recycling  

In e-waste recycling, metals have a significant recycling advantage over plastics. The distinct properties of metals, including their different densities, colors, and electrical and magnetic properties, make it easier for humans and machines to separate them from other materials. Meanwhile, plastics pose a greater challenge due to their similar properties, overlapping densities, and any plastic can be any color. As a result, the recycling of e-waste metals surpasses that of plastics. 

To cope with the difficulty of separating the metals from plastics in e-waste, many organizations in high income countries resort to exporting their e-waste to developing countries for informal recycling. This informal economy thrives in regions such as Central America, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia, where laborers engage in hazardous practices to extract metals from obsolete electronics. Burning obsolete electronics without protective equipment, manually stripping metals, and discarding unsalable parts into bodies of water pollute the environment and pose severe health risks to nearby communities. 

80 percent of the world's e-waste is processed through this informal economy, concentrating in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China. These regions become attractive import destinations for unmonitored e-waste, as companies label their shipments as "reusable" or "donations" to avoid the higher costs of formal e-waste recycling domestically. The consequences of informal e-waste recycling include toxic pollution in food, water, and air, perpetuating a dangerous cycle of environmental degradation jeopardizing human health.  


Formal E-Waste Recycling 

Within formal electronics recycling lies an industry known as IT Asset Disposition (ITAD), where safe transformation unfolds. ITAD companies breathe new life into discarded gadgets and safeguard sensitive data, all while reaping the hidden treasures within. The ITAD industry concentrates in North America, Western Europe, and Asia-Pacific.   

At the heart of ITAD lie three essential services: data sanitization, repair and refurbishment, and the transformation of electronics into raw commodities. The journey begins with the careful sorting of e-waste into different categories, such as desktops, laptops, tablets, servers, and keyboards. Each device is then evaluated for functionality, considering its physical condition and responsiveness. Those that pass the assessment undergo a data removal process, where data-bearing assets are thoroughly cleansed without causing damage to the hardware. Once functional components are removed, they are repurposed for in-house refurbishment, sold to wholesalers, or made available on platforms like eBay. 

For electronics that cannot be repaired or reused, a meticulous shredding process comes into play. Prior to shredding, all hazardous components are carefully removed and sent for specialized recycling. The shredder then reduces the remaining electronic material into smaller pieces, typically 1.5-to-2.5 inches in size. These fragments are mechanically sorted through vibrating screens, magnetic separation, eddy current separation, and density separation. The resulting metal outputs are sent to smelters, while the plastics find their way to compounders. Ultimately, the recycled e-waste commodities find their place predominantly in European and Asian markets.


Informal Versus Formal Recycling  


Find out more...

To learn more about e-waste recycling see NexantECA’s "E-Waste Recycling TECH Report (TECH 2022S6)". This comprehensive report dives deep into the technical, economic, policy, and strategic dimensions of electronic waste on a regional and global scale. Gain unparralled insights into the economics of standard industrial e-waste recycling plants in the United States, valuable knowledge on ITAD service rates, revenue-sharing splits, feedstock sourcing and evaluation, operational efficiency, refurbishment markets, and raw commodity value.  




The Author…

Luke Downing, Analyst



About Us - NexantECA, the Energy and Chemicals Advisory company is the leading advisor to the energy, refining, and chemical industries. Our clientele ranges from major oil and chemical companies, governments, investors, and financial institutions to regulators, development agencies, and law firms. Using a combination of business and technical expertise, with deep and broad understanding of markets, technologies and economics, NexantECA provides solutions that our clients have relied upon for over 50 years.


For All Enquiries Contact Us