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The curious new methods of e-waste recycling

February 06, 2023
tags:#electronic waste, #circular economy, #recycling, #pollution, #conservaiton, #e-waste
located:Ghana, New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Kenya
by:Bob Koigi
Scientists and researchers are embracing the use of non-harmful microbes-bacteria, fungi and algae to achieve a "clean" recycling of electronic waste, as conventional methods have come under scrutiny for relying on toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and human health.

The explosive ubiquity of electronic gadgets is becoming a growing a menace, as their disposal continues to pose a major threat to human health and the environment.

Based on current figures, over 52 million tonnes of electronic waste are generated annually across the globe. In 2022, researchers estimated that out of the roughly 16 billion phones owned by people around the world, an estimated 5.3 billion would become waste.

The burden of Electronic waste 

A bulk of electronic waste containing hazardous materials such as mercury is dumped illegally and ends up in landfills or incinerated. These materials then leak into the soil, pollute water bodies and enter the food chain.

Such was the case at an electronic waste disposal site in Central Accra, Ghana, where hens’ eggs were found to have chlorinated dioxins (a toxic material) at levels that were 220 higher than those permitted in Europe. 

Countries in the Global South have been bearing the brunt of the crisis, as wealthy nations continue to dump thousands of tonnes of electronic waste in the form of old computers, phones and tablets presented as donations.

Researchers have begun to sound the alarm on this trend, warning that carbon emissions from the production, use and disposal of electronic devices will account for 14 percent of all emissions by 2040, an equivalent of one half of the emissions from the world transport sector today.

The situation is predicted to reach critical levels in 2050, with  up to 120 million tonnes of discarded electronics, if nothing is done. 

There have been multiple attempts at recycling such waste through various modern interventions, among them Pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.

But the latter involve the use of high temperatures and hazardous chemicals, which consume a great deal of energy and are harmful to both human health and the environment.

Yet the recycling industry - estimated at USD 62.5 billion - continues to explore opportunities as the demand for precious metals soars to satiate the growing global appetite for electronic devices and as the availability of natural resources and rare earth elements dwindles. 

Is Clean recycling possible? 

As demand for eco-friendly, carbon-neutral technologies intensifies, researchers, scientists and private companies are exploring sustainable recycling options, among which is the use of beneficial bacteria and fungi in a process dubbed Bioleaching. Using non-toxic chemicals and less energy, the process has been hailed as the future of electronic waste recycling.

"At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented availability of electronic gadgets - and dumping in equal measure, the biggest challenge has been [figuring out] how to safely discard them," Caleb Mtamisi, an environmentalist teaching at Kenyatta Universit and a vocal advocate for the recycling of e-waste, told FairPlanet.

"It is a big problem, especially in developing countries that do not have the requisite infrastructure to recycle," he added. "This has far reaching environmental and health impacts. Numerous studies have pointed to the dangers that these countries are staring at with the e-waste menace."

One of the companies that stepped up its efforts to provide biological e-waste recycling solutions is Mint Innovation, a New Zealand clean tech startup. Through a low-tech process of using naturally sourced microbes, the company is able to recover precious metals from crushed e-waste.

Its bio-refinery in Sydney, Australia has potential to recycle more than 3,000 tonnes of e-waste, which can be repurposed to manufacture new products. The goal of the startup is to establish similar bio-refineries in all major cities around the world. 

Over in the UK, N2S, a company that offers IT lifecycle services, has been working with Coventry University to extract and recycle precious metals from electronic waste by using non-toxic bacteria. Coventry University has also extracted copper from computer circuit boards that were discarded and recycled them into high-quality foil using bioleaching, a process that could inspire industrial application. 

At the same time, IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems in Austria has been betting on bacteria and algae to recycle rare earth metals from electronic waste in a project dubbed REEgain. The initiative works with local waste management and recycling companies that supply electronic waste in a bid to promote inclusivity. 

Catalysing a circular economy

Some experts state that in addition to reducing the harmful effects to human health and environment, the use of bacteria to recycle electronic waste is spurring a circular economy which they predict could have a market value of up to $4.5 trillion by 2030.

"Bioleaching has provided a unique model that not only guarantees safety of human health and environment, but harnessed a circular economy where what is produced doesn’t go to waste," noted Mtamisi, adding that, "the process of that recycling fanned a market that is creating jobs."

"However," he cautioned, "to make all this inclusive there is a need to bring into the equation manufacturers and producers of these electronics."

Image by John Cameron.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Ghana New Zealand Australia Austria Kenya
Embed from Getty Images
Based on current figures, over 52 million tonnes of electronic waste are generated annually across the globe
Embed from Getty Images
As demand for eco-friendly, carbon-neutral technologies intensifies, researchers, scientists and private companies are exploring sustainable methods of e-waste recycling.
Embed from Getty Images
Bioleaching involves the use of beneficial bacteria and fungi to recover precious metals from crushed e-waste.
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