E-Waste in the Alley (Silver Spring, MD)

E-Waste – obsolete and unused electronics. WEEE – Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or waste electrical and electronic equipment describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. The term can apply to resale, reuse, and refurbishing industries, or only to a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose.

The world discards up to 50 million tons of electronic devices – the equivalent of throwing out 125,000 fully loaded 747’s – of which only between 10 and 18% are recycled. Most of this e-waste is actually exported, mostly illegally, to countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and China, where workers looking to make a profit from copper and gold, informally recycle it. Sadly, the men, women and even children who dismantle and burn this e-waste are rarely protected from the dangerous toxins caused when the e-waste is burned to extract the precious metals. more…

Informal processing of electronic waste in developing countries may cause serious health and pollution problems, though these countries are also most likely to reuse and repair electronics. In this video, children and adults recycle highly toxic waste materials under perilous conditions.

All electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, may contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to workers and communities and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaching of material such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.

The following items can be recycled, reused, or potentially redesigned to cut back on E-Waste.

  • Cell Phones – can be refurbished and reused by others, or parts can be pulled and recycled in new phone or electronics. Can be redesigned to be easily up-graded with no need to dispose of the old phone.
  • Printer Ink/Toner Cartridges – can be cleaned and used again, defective parts are cleaned then used for recyclable plastic. Can be redesigned to use easily recycled plastics.
  • CDs/CD ROMs – arts and crafts, the plastic can be ground and used in other items. Software companies may offer software that is downloaded from the Internet without needing the CD to complete installation.
  • Personal Computers and Monitors – can be refurbished and reused, obsolete PC’s can be stripped of parts for recycling metals, glass, and plastic. Can be redesigned to use more recyclable parts or recycled parts. Upgrades can be designed so that only a small component is replaced, not the entire unit.
  • Household Appliances – Can be donated to charities to be refurbished and reused. Can be redesigned to include more recyclable parts.

Current recycling methods for electronics pollute the environment and endanger those involved in the toxic process. However, that are many new and innovative alternatives being introduced.

  • Esource – a bicycle-powered cable recycling system for developing countries. It consists of two machines, a shredder and a sorter. First the shredder produces a mix of plastic and copper particles. Then the sorter separates the copper and plastic particles, leading to 98% pure copper. By using Esource, instead of burning wiring, the copper that it produces is worth approximately 30% more than if burnt. Additionally, the plastic sheathing can now be sold, providing a new source of income. Apart from the financial benefits, there would be huge environmental and health benefits, all of which using one of the cheapest and most popular method of transportation in the world: the bicycle.
  • Attero recycling – machines handle the most hazardous and toxic tasks. The aluminum, plastics, ferrous and non-ferrous metals are separated safely, and ready to be recycled and treated.

Reuse it or lose it
Many industry groups and others investigate consumer electronics and determine opportunities for the recycling of raw and/or processed materials. They identify the materials that can be cost-effectively recycled.

  • Ask – The amount of e-waste is already a problem. Many of the chemical components are toxic to the environment. Breaking electronics apart to remove the valuable metals like copper and gold they contain is dangerous work. What is E-Waste? What are some examples of it?
  • Imagine – Everyone is looking for suggestions for dealing with e-waste include redesign of an item, a method for reusing the item, or a method of recycling the item. As a consumer, what are some ways you can help ease the problem of E-Waste?
  • Plan – Research shows that in 2006, there would be approximately 163,000 computers that become obsolete every day. At the same time, people will purchase 58 million new computers every day. Recycling efforts have led to 70% of e-waste being recycled, with the average consumer spending $15 to recycle their old computer. Assume that the useful life of a computer is 5 years. How many computers became obsolete in 2011. How many of the obsolete computers would be recycled in 2011, assuming that the recycling rate stays the same? How much would it cost to recycle computers in 2011, assuming costs to recycle increase one dollar for every year?
  • Create – The electronics industry and consumers create solution to the e-waste problem. Is there more current information about recycling e-waste? What is your E-Waste solution? Who would use this solution?
  • Improve – Some electronics manufactures are encouraging recycling by paying consumers to bring in their old equipment when they buy something new. This is usually a credit that can be used toward the price of their purchase. Other manufacturers are working to reduce the amount of material that needs to be recycled – smaller cases, less weight, bio-degradable components, removable parts to facilitate recycling. Are there better solutions to e-waste recycling? How can the solution be improved or promoted?

Engineering ideas

  • Bimetal, Biodegradable, Combustion, Conserve, Curbside collection, Drop-off, Environment, Household hazardous waste, Integrated waste management, Land filling, Municipal solid waste, Post-consumer materials, Pre-consumer materials, Recyclable, Recycled content, Recycling, Reuse, Source reduction, Source separation, Toxic, Virgin materials

News, updates

  • Global E-Waste Will Jump 33 Percent in the Next Five Years – The United States and China were responsible for nearly half the world’s total in market volume of e-waste in 2012, which includes anything with a battery or electrical cord. China generates about 5.4 kilograms per person, compared to 29.8 per capita in America. The United States has the highest figure of major countries, but it is behind a handful of other places including Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Luxembourg.
  • West African Inventor Makes a $100 3D Printer From E-Waste – Kodjo Afate Gnikou, a resourceful inventor from Togo in West Africa, has made a $100 3D printer which he constructed from parts he scrounged from broken scanners, computers, printers and other e-waste. The fully functional DIY printer cost a fraction of those currently on the market, and saves environmentally damaging waste from reaching landfill sites.
  • Self-destructing electronics – create transient devices that physically disappear over time in a controlled process.

Do it
Here are some challenges for you to work on…

  • redesign of an item
  • think of a new method for reusing the item
  • describe a new method of recycling the item
  • A great idea is useless unless you can get supporters! Present you solution as a 5 minute formal presentation based on your research. Include at least one visual aid – poster, slides, brochure, etc.

Learn more…

  • E-Waste – Electronic waste (e-waste) encompasses a wide range of discarded electronic devices such as computers, mp3 players, televisions and cell phones. Just one computer can contain hundreds of chemicals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems.
  • Electronic waste