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The Ever-Growing Pile of Electronic Waste is Now on the Decline, Study Finds

A new study has found that the total mass of e-waste generated by Americans has been declining since 2015.

In an age when most of us can’t imagine life without our digital devices, this surprising finding has ramifications both for the way we think about the future of e-waste and for laws and regulations around waste recycling. electronic, according to the study authors.

The study, led by a researcher at the Yale Environmental School Center for Industrial Ecology and recently published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, says the biggest contributor to this decline is the disappearance of the large and bulky cathode ray tube (CRT). . televisions and computer monitors from American homes.

Callie Babbitt, a professor at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the study’s authors, explains that since about 2011, CRT displays have been decreasing in the waste stream, helping to lead the overall decline. in total e-waste. mass.

This decline in bulkier displays means e-waste regulations may need to be rethought, Babbitt says. “If you look at the state laws that exist in many places for e-waste recycling, many of them set their goals based on the mass of the product,” he says. As the overall mass of e-waste decreases, meeting those goals becomes more difficult.

Additionally, Babbitt says, the primary goal of these regulations had been to keep electronic devices with high levels of lead and mercury out of landfills, where they can eventually leach into the surrounding environment. But these days, a more pertinent concern is how to recover elements like cobalt (used in lithium-ion batteries) or indium (found in flat-panel displays). These elements are not so toxic for the environment; rather, they are relatively scarce in the earth’s crust, so not recovering them for reuse in new electronic devices is wasteful.

“The e-waste recycling system is kind of retrospective,” says Babbitt; has struggled to keep up with the ever-changing nature of electronics.

Shahana Althaf, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology, notes that a shift in e-waste recycling to capture more of these critical elements could also help the United States secure its supply of the ingredients needed to make electronic devices. Geopolitical uncertainties can pose a threat to what Althaf calls “mineral security” for the US.

“People are gradually realizing … the need to guarantee domestic supply,” he says. Instead of extracting the mineral from the earth’s crust, capturing the elements from e-waste could provide these crucial elements. In addition to mineral safety, this would reduce the environmental destruction that traditional mining often entails.

The large number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is also stabilizing or slightly decreasing, say Babbitt and Althaf. This is because of something Babbitt calls “convergence”: game consoles, for example, can act like DVD players; smartphones are also cameras and video recorders. In the past, Babbitt says, people needed separate devices for each of those apps.

To accumulate the data necessary for their study, the authors used material flow analysis, a technique for quantifying the resources entering or leaving a system.

They focused on twenty categories of digital devices, including computers, smartphones, digital cameras, and audiovisual equipment, and took dozens of products apart in a lab to determine the relative content of several important items, in addition to relying on previously published publications. data.

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“This is a very important finding that runs counter to the widespread notion that e-waste is the ‘fastest growing waste stream,'” says Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Yale-based Journal of Industrial Ecology. . “It changes our understanding of the e-waste problem,” he says.

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In the United States, e-waste recycling is regulated at the state level, and only half of the states have e-waste recycling laws. That leads to a patchwork of regulations that makes it difficult for companies to navigate if they want their products to be easier to recycle, Babbitt says.

A more holistic federal approach could help increase the overall catch of rare items. Ultimately, we should “see waste as a resource,” says Althaf: an opportunity, rather than a problem.

Source: Yale School of the Environment

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