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E-waste

In this video, Dr. Nathan B. English will teach us about the appropriate disposal of e-waste.
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<v ->In this short lecture,</v> we’ll talk about E-waste and E-waste is short for electronic waste. And basically it’s any waste that has electricity run through it. From what we can typically consider E-waste, a computer or a mobile phone or a printer to even things like washing machines, microwaves, basically any appliance that has electricity that runs through it, or you can run electricity through. So especially things with circuit boards, because circuit boards have lots of different kinds of metals on them and lots of plastics involved. So E-waste is a growing component of the waste stream. And it’s considered a hazardous component because it has lots of different hazardous materials, usually within it.
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And lots of rare earth elements, precious metals, and lots of actually valuable materials in it as waste. So we do class it as a hazardous waste, you don’t really think of your grandma’s washing machine as a hazardous waste, but you should, especially nowadays, because it will have circuit boards in it. It’ll have computer components and electronics inside it. So there’s different categories of E-waste and they are different amounts, different global amounts and tons, but also consider their value as well. So we can look at E-waste in terms of global mass, or we can look at it in terms of value. I’ll show you that in just a little bit, but basically things like temperature exchange equipment.
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So this is air conditioners, freezers, refrigerators, window air con units, split air con units, all of those. And that’s about 7 million tons globally. And now these are also, remember it’s waste, so it’s things that people are throwing out and typically replacing with the new components.
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And also remember that you don’t always throw out a piece of equipment when it’s actually at the end of its useful life. You throw it out because you’re replacing it with the brand new, latest and greatest. Screens and monitors, which is probably what you’re watching this on right now. Lighting is a very small component of it, but it is also considered E-waste now. So especially with a fluorescent and LED light bulbs, they have small computer electronics in them. And then large equipment, small equipment, this would be things like Xerox machines, printers. Small equipment would be computers, keyboards and then small IT and telecom equipments.
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So this would be phones, could be servers and it could even be the extension leads and wires that you plug into the wall. So all of those are types of E-waste. So E-waste is a growing issue as more and more people gain influence, and are able to purchase electronic items and products. And this is just to give you some sense of the actual scale of the issue. And these are numbers of units sold. So every year in the US they’re selling about 1700 million or 1.7 billion phones.
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Sorry, that’s globally. Sorry, that make more sense. And that’s in the year 2015. So total smartphones, 12, sorry. It’s just Android and iPhone together. Laptops, desktops, remember this is units in millions, lots of things that are electronic being bought and sold. And some of these are relatively new to the globe. So ebook readers, they came in in 2015 and this number would be much greater by now or mobile phones. These numbers would have all increased from 2013, 2015
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before this study was actually even published in 2017. The average lifespan of these items is anywhere between four and seven years. And some people with smartphones if you use them real often, there’ll be even less than four years because the batteries go dead. And I think I talked a little bit about this with the right to repair video in that, oftentimes the end of our E component or E product is not
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actually the end of it, it’s just because it’s dictated by one component, oftentimes the battery. And if we can just replace that battery, we could extend the average life of many of these components for a longer. But again, because it’s environmental science, it’s an issue of economics, it’s an issue of social, it’s a legal issue. And it delves into all these other facets of environmental science and global environmental consumerism and the production of waste. So not to get too far into the weeds there, but this is a really nice sort of some numbers, some quantitative data about the E-waste problem and some quantitative data about the average life span in years of typical E-waste components.
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Because people have begun to realize that not only is E-waste a problem, it’s an opportunity. It’s increasingly being 3R’d, which is recycled refurbished or reused. But four times as much E-waste is actually disposed off. And landfills are incinerated as is actually recycled, refurbished or reused.
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The 3R’s of that do have a lot of benefits. They reduced the disposal contamination in the environment. So mercury is sometimes a component and lead is a component in the solder. So if you can keep a lot of these, especially these old CRT or cathode-ray tube televisions, which is what this gentleman is holding right here, he’s big fat TVs, you can keep these out of the environment. You can keep a lot of hazardous waste out of the environment as well. Profits from trace elements and rare earth market sales, a lot of your mobile phones and modern laptops and other electronic components have rare earth elements. And as the name suggests, they’re rare.
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And so if we can recycle those, it’s actually quite valuable to recycle those, our REE’s, as they’re called in shorthand, the rare earth elements. The increasing E-waste, the availability of electronic products is leading to increasing recycling refurbishment in developing nations, reduced dependence on mining is another benefit of 3Ring E-waste. Income stream and employment, and I’ll have something to say about that at the very end. So this is oftentimes a one man’s waste is another man’s treasure, to quote a phrase. So income stream employment, people are taking E-waste and essentially breaking it up into smaller components to sell back and recycle. And it is an opportunity for developing nations to
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grow their economies through the processing of other countries E-waste. The economic reasons to recycle E-waste include the valuable and precious metals they contain. And remember I said, we can look at E-waste both by mass or by value. And this is a really cool diagram. It’s a little hard to read, but it’s basically for each electronic device on the left-hand side, it gives the value in euros per kilogram of products. So how much has that product worth on the recycle market divided by its weight? And it also gives you the value of the product just per unit. And you can see something like a smartphone
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isn’t incredibly valuable per unit, but on a mass basis, it’s incredibly valuable, smartphones and cell phones or mobile phones. It’s incredibly valued because of the rare earth elements it contains and think of all the lithium and just in the battery itself. Whereas something like an old cathode-ray tube TV,
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because it’s so heavy, it’s got some valuable stuff in it, but it’s so heavy when you divide by the weight of the TV, it reduces that value quite a bit, but it’s incredibly valuable because it’s 24 euros per CRT TV because of all the rare earth elements in it, especially in the phosphorus and the screen and some of the electronic in the cathode-ray tube. So it’s worthwhile just thinking about E-waste sometimes not only about the volume and the mass of the object, but actually what is the value of each unit itself?
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E-waste recycling is great, but I will point out that there are some environmental social justice impacts of recycling these materials, because oftentimes these materials aren’t actually recycled in the country where they are consumed and used. And this goes as well, that they’re oftentimes they’re not even produced in the country they’re consumed in. So in Australia for say, a lot of our products are made in Asia, those products are shipped to Australia, we use those products. And then when we’re done with them, we throw those products away. And if we’re conscious about it, we’ll put our E-waste in the E-waste bin at the tip.
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And then that E-waste is actually exported back to Asia or to another country and it’s processed there. And it’s oftentimes processed in those other countries because it’s cheaper to process it there because there are fewer health and safety and environmental regulations that oversee that E-waste recycling. So essentially the health impacts and the environmental impacts of E-waste recycling are offshored to developing nations. And so that’s something we should consider when we’re thinking about E-waste recycling, it’s great. But if we can think of ways to recycle E-waste while also creating better social and environmental safeguards, that would be really good as well. And that way we’re not offshoring our environmental responsibilities and our ecological footprint to other nations.
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And I’ll end that here with this picture of, it’s a lovely picture by Montaka Chasard, a lovely picture. I think it’s a really illustrative picture from Montaka Chasard, and it’s scrap workers recovering copper from copper wiring in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. And here you can see that they’ve gone out there collecting this E-waste, which is the copper wire electricity runs through it, and then they’re essentially burning off the plastic to recover the copper, and then they’ll go and sell that copper, that copper will be reused, but the environmental impact of this is huge.
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The air pollution, the respiratory health issues related to air pollution created by this industry, which we would consider in some ways is a good, it’s good to recycle metals, it reduces the need for mining, but here in the way it’s being recycled is causing an issue, a health and environmental issue as well. And again, it goes back to one of these wicked problems in, is it better that we recycle the copper, is it may be better that we stop the burning or can we find a way where we can both recycle copper and stop this air pollution, environmental impact? So I’ll leave you with this wicked problem, but also with a sense that E-waste is an important issue.
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And one that’s well worth looking at in the future.

E-waste is a growing component of the waste stream that is comprised of anything that has had electricity run through it. Because of the components of e-waste, it can be measured in mass or in value.

Watch Dr. Nathan B. English explain the types of e-waste and the problems and opportunities they create.

Video guide

Since this video is a little longer than most videos in this course, here is a guide to the topics it covers.

Topic Timestamp
What is E-waste? 0:05
E-waste is growing 3:00
Re-using, refurbishing and recycling E-waste 5:30
The value of E-waste 7:25
Impacts of recycling E-waste 9:10

Now it’s your turn

Dr. English points out that e-waste recycling is often outsourced to developing nations, causing environmental social impacts. What are some ways we could improve e-waste recycling without offshoring health and environmental impacts to developing nations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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