Increasing at a rate of 3-4% every year, E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste categories on the earth. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report, a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, growing by about two million tonnes every year. It is considered as one of the top most waste concerns in sustainable production and consumption phenomenon.
The E-waste contains many precious metals like iron, copper, gold, silver, aluminum, manganese, chromium and zinc along with various rare earth elements. The rate at which these abiotic resources are extracted is significantly higher than the rate of their formation in nature.
Urban mining is the solution to this problem. Urban mining is the process of recovering the rare and precious metals from the discarded waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) of a society. The scarcity of rare and precious metal resources and the limitation of the earth to reproduce them have led to the emergence of urban mining to recover the critical materials from the WEEE.
E-waste recovery not only cleans up landfills, but it reuses precious metals for new electronics. As per the reports, within the next century, electronics staples such as gallium, arsenic, silver, indium, yttrium, and tantalum are expected to run out.
People have become aware and are ready to look out for recyclable, and Eco-friendly products as against the conventional ones. Research from RSC showed that 60 percent of people, surveyed across 10 countries, would be more likely to switch to the rival brand of their go-to tech brand, if it was somehow made more sustainably. Most people worry about the environmental effect of the unused tech they have in their house and they don’t know what to do with it.
For the success of the urban mining process, it is important that the manufacturers produce recyclable products. Also, the e-waste collection system should be in place along with the advanced technology-based recycling centers where the precious reusable materials can be recovered from the waste.
As shown in the figure, collection, preprocessing and recovery are the three basic stages in urban mining. The first stage collection is highly dependent on the collection systems that are in place and also on the consumer awareness as they have to return the EOL EEEs (including the smallest of them) to the collection centers for recycling.
Organizations need to run campaigns to spread awareness among the people about the e-waste and why they need to be properly disposed of (particularly the mobile phones and tablets as they are bought/upgraded quite often) to a recycling facility instead of stockpiling them at home. The awareness among the people should also be complemented with some incentives like free pickup of some coupons if they hand over their EOL EEEs to the collection centers.
“In the nearer term, we urge everyone to be more conscious about how they use and reuse technology. Before you dispose or replace it, ask yourself if it really needs replaced. Could it be repaired or updated? If it can’t be sold or donated, could it be recycled?” as said by Professor Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry