06-05 e-waste recycling

[Image above] Example of workers dismantling electronic waste for recycling. Credit: Interesting Engineering, YouTube

While we often spend a lot of time celebrating new technological advances, the question of what to do with these devices at the end of their life is generally less frequently discussed. But over the past decade, the topic of electronic waste, or e-waste, has become increasingly difficult to ignore.

In 2022, a record 62 million tonnes of e-waste were produced, up 82% from 2010. This mass is enough to fill 1.55 million 40-tonne trucks, or roughly enough trucks to form a bumper-to-bumper line encircling the equator.

The above statistic comes from the 2024 Global E-waste Monitor report. This report is published every few years as a partnership between the United Nation’s Sustainable Cycles program and the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nation’s specialized agency for digital technology.

Even as more e-waste is produced each year, less than one quarter (22.3%) of e-waste mass in 2022 was documented as having been properly collected and recycled. Without intervention, the gap between e-waste generation and recycling is expected to grow even larger by 2030, with generation growing to 82 million tonnes and recycling dropping to only 20%.

While there are obviously environmental risks of e-waste, there is also an untapped economic component to this complex waste stream. The 2024 Global E-waste Monitor report estimates there is US$91 billion worth of metals embedded in 2022 e-waste, including US$19 billion in copper, US$15 billion in gold, and US$16 billion in iron.

If e-waste management is improved, it “could result in a global net positive of US$38 billion, representing a significant economic opportunity while addressing climate change and health impacts,” says Ruediger Kuehr, senior manager of the Sustainable Cycles program, in a press release on the report.

Credit: Interesting Engineering, YouTube

In May 2024, several companies and organizations announced the formation of a new coalition to encourage e-waste recycling on a local scale. The new Circular Supply Chain Coalition is governed by Pyxera Global, Sustain our Future, and Metabolic, with FedEx directing the implementation.

As explained on the coalition’s website, modern waste infrastructure is often placed in low-income neighborhoods, and jobs managing discarded materials usually pay subpar wages. The founding partners “aim to change the situation by creating systems that distribute material value through networks rooted in and powered by frontline communities.”

In theory, they will establish networks of small businesses and nonprofits within a given city to process the e-waste, and then the networks will sell the recovered materials to a large clean energy technology manufacturer through a forward procurement financial mechanism called the circular services agreement.

To test the feasibility of this concept, the founding partners ran a five-month pilot program in Lebanon, Tenn., that ended in March 2024. The program provided consumers with free FedEx shipping labels to mail in their used laptops and tablets to the Electronics Reuse and Recycling Alliance, a Nashville-based information technology scrap management company, which collected the items and wiped the hard drives.

According to a GreenBiz article, the founding partners currently are planning to establish logistics hubs in Phoenix, Ariz., Atlanta, Ga., and Cleveland, Ohio. They are seeking new partners to help establish these and other local networks.

“This is about leveraging your company’s sustainability goals toward the goals community members have,” says Yinka Bode-George, founder and CEO of the Sustain Our Future Foundation in Washington, D.C., in the GreenBiz article. “It is possible to leverage both of these things at the same time.”