New and Alternative: E-waste Recycling and Recovery v. Mining Finite Resources

E-waste recycling has relevant solutions to the pollution and problems caused when traditional mining is used to acquire dwindling resources. These finite resources are necessary components of most electronics and a host of other devices and machines. When electronics are recycled properly, e-waste can become a viable and renewable source of these dwindling resources.

In this post, we’ll examine traditional mining and learn more about the ways electronics recycling can help overcome the common pitfalls and drawbacks of the process.

Mining Finite Resources the Traditional Way

While traditional mining supplies economies with a number of scarce resources and precious metals, it also possess a significant risk to the environment. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, each form of mining including open pit mining, underground mining, ISL mining, heap leach mining and brine mining possesses its own set of environmental hazards when improperly regulated or when existing regulations are not followed.

For instance, with underground mining, the most obvious hazards is collapse, but the dangers to the environment go beyond even that. Extracted waste, created once the ore is removed, tends to be very acidic and otherwise toxic to both land and water. Even non-traditional mining techniques, like ISL leach mining, have environmental drawbacks despite safety advantages.

Changes to the land once the mining site is canceled remain even though mining is a temporary process. Because much of the materials recovered are finite in nature, they represent a non-renewable source which requires more mining to support supply and demand dynamics.

Further, when state or federal departments are lax in regulating mining, the effects can be devastating. Despite high profits, the mining process often leads to irreversible changes to the environment and requires ever newer sites to support demand.

Recycling and Recovery of Finite Resources From E-waste

Normally, e-waste recycling consists of sustainable disposal of electronics waste with the ideal goal of keeping electronic devices and appliances out of the waste stream and out of landfills. This is because electronics pose serious environmental risks and hazards due to the makeup of electrical components within them such as lead and mercury.

On the flipside of this scenario, electronic waste can also be mined for the scarce resources contained therein. Materials like gold, silver and platinum and even rare precious metals can be found, albeit in tiny amounts, in most electronic devices such as tablets, laptops and mobile phones. In other words, the same components that render e-waste an environmental threat can be recovered to create a new and alternative approach to mining finite resources.

The implications are clear. E-waste recycling stands to become a sustainable alternative to traditional mining and even non-traditional methods of mining with environmental and safety advantages.

Why E-waste Recovery Over Traditional Mining?

While traditional mining may have set the pace for recovery of precious metals and materials, e-waste recycling and recovery could be a vital alternative in the coming years. This applies especially in instances where resources are dwindling to amounts so low that entire areas have become depleted and not suitable for traditional mining.

Electronics recycling and recovery has obvious advantages over traditional mining, particularly in terms of pollution. Sustainable e-waste recycling produces less waste in its processing than even the most environmentally beneficial forms of mining.

The method also has advantages in terms of social impact. Treating disposed electronics as a source of precious metals and materials means less of a dependence on clandestine methods, namely the war-torn mining processes that occur for crisis minerals in central Africa. Stress and disease among workers and in nearby communities can also benefit from non-traditional mining when policy makers and regulator include recycling and recovery as alternatives.

What’s being done to increase electronics recycling and recovery?

In states like California, covered electronic devices, in an indirect way, subsidize the useful and sustainable recycling of electronic devices. At the time of purchase consumers pay a small fee over and above the price of an electronic device. Retailers remit this payment to a state held fund which is then distributed to recyclers in order cover the expenses of recycling and recovery processes.

This type of e-waste recycling process is prevalent in a number of states and is called user fee-based. Fee based systems are helping states, recyclers and consumers approach the e-waste crisis in a unified way, each playing a role in increasing electronics recycling by removing some of the most prevalent related barriers.

The user fee based systems differ only slightly from the producer fee based systems. In these systems, the fee shifts to electronics producers and manufacturers. States with such systems place responsibility on the manufacturers of certain electronics to both pay for and recycle the outdated or used electronics they produce. Many of these manufactures enter into agreements with certified recyclers to ensure each device is recycled properly.

Such systems can help increase electronics recycling and recovery by stabilizing markets and offsetting the costs of manufacture and disposal.

Finite Resources v. Renewable E-waste

The contrast between the traditional mining of finite resource and the recycling and recovery of e-waste, which is fast becoming a renewable resource, highlights the importance of e-waste recycling and recovery systems.

Traditional mining has environmentally unfriendly effects that often bring devastating changes to regions and communities that cannot be undone. Some of the very same materials recovered using traditional mining can be recovered via more sustainable methods of electronics recycling and recovery.

While many of our state government supported recycling systems can be improved and expanded, even in their current states, they’re helping to increase e-waste recycling and recovery in ways that could enable the United States to make a more significant contribution to the battle against e-waste.