Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is Europe’s busiest port. It’s become the scene of a very 21st-century crime: smuggling electronic waste illegally out of Europe and into poor countries. When Europe mandated e-waste recycling, only two or three million tons of waste was turned in, not the expected seven million tons. The missing e-waste was probably exported illegally.
It’s unfortunate, because it’s particularly important to properly recycle e-waste. E-waste contains dangerous chemicals like lead, beryllium, mercury, and cadmium. Improperly disposed of, these materials can seep into groundwater, contaminate the soil, and pollute the air.
These toxins have significant deleterious effects. The Chinese city of Guiyu has become a dumping ground for electronic waste from the West. Eighty-eight percent of children there suffer from lead poisoning. The water is undrinkable; water must be trucked in from elsewhere. Skin problems and respiratory problems are rife. A standard recycling method in Guiyu is to separate out plastic by boiling circuit boards on stoves, creating even more toxic fumes in a city where it’s already almost impossible to breathe. It’s estimated that seventy percent of the e-waste from the West is dumped in China each year.
It’s important to dispose of e-waste more responsibly, but what to do with e-waste is a problem that’s only going to become more critical. E-waste is growing at three times the rate of other refuse. In 1998, 20 million computers were trashed in America; by 2009 that number had reached 47.4 million. Pike Research, in a 2011 report, estimated that global e-scrap will more than double in the next 15 years.
E-waste isn’t all poisonous. It also contains silver, gold, and palladium. High-tech e-waste recycling can recover the gold while not dispersing the poisons. A modern e-waste recycling facility can recover as much as 95% of the gold in e-waste.
How is e-waste recycled responsibly? The process usually begins with shredding. The material is broken down into sizes that can be easily analyzed. Then the material undergoes analysis by sophisticated machines that are able to optically identify materials. Magnets are used to separate out ferrous metals like iron. Eddy currents separate out non-ferrous metals and aluminum; when metals are passed through a drum, eddy currents will pull the nonferrous elements out and throw them away from the conveyor. High-resolution color cameras can sort out small particles. Sophisticated software has the ability to identify elements based on shape and size. Color-sorting algorithms make it possible to identify copper and other high-value elements. Another category of sorter uses color sensors to separate plastics and circuit boards. These techniques can produce clean, reusable commodities. E-waste recycling products include plastic, steel, aluminum, and of course precious metals like gold, all ready to live a useful new life in new products.
We manufacture equipment that provides accurate, responsible e-waste recycling. We can help you get high-value commodities out of your e-waste while protecting the environment. Contact Karl W. Schmidt & Associates to discuss the contribution our machinery can make to your e-waste recycling program.