Urban mining and recycling e-waste can help lower our carbon footprint and curb global warming.
Over the past century, the global average temperature has increased 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of this climate change has occurred over the last 37 years. This unwanted climate change or global warming has been, and still is one of the biggest concerns of environmentalists across the world. Scientists from various research institutes including NASA routinely collect temperature data from around the globe and have records of the planet’s average temperature since 1880s. The data confirms that, globally, the last ten years have been the warmest ever recorded.
This climate change is the effect of various anthropogenic activities that results in emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG). These gases trap heat from escaping the atmosphere of our planet, which eventually leads to global warming.
This climate change is and will affect our planet adversely in the following ways:-
1) Rising sea levels causing coastal floods
2) Diminishing water resources due to shrinking mountain glaciers and reducing snow cover
3) Increase in heat-related mortality
4) Harmful impact on ecosystems and possible loss in biological diversity and
5) Agricultural shifts such as change in crop yields and productivity
Several industries contribute towards GHG emission either directly or indirectly. Energy production, manufacturing, mining for raw materials, transportation and depleting forest cover are some of the biggest contributors of GHGs in the atmosphere.
How Electronics Manufacturing and E-waste Contributes to Global Warming
Everything that is manufactured or used has a carbon footprint and the rapidly growing electronics manufacturing industry is one of the major sectors contributing to GHG emissions. Due to evolving technology, and the fast-paced development of new electronics, consumption of electronic products has increased extensively. These factors coupled with planned obsolescence and high discard rates of electronics have further added to the continuously rising piles of e-waste.
For the production of electronic items raw materials are required. These raw materials have to be extracted from the earth by mining for ore; many of these required raw materials are rare earth minerals, which means a lot of mining needs to be carried out to extract sizeable quantities of these minerals required for electronics production. These materials then go through extensive processing to reach the final product stage. Mining and processing are highly energy intensive processes and since most of these energy requirements are met through combustion of fossil fuels or through electricity generated by combustion of fossil fuels, it results in high levels of carbon and GHG emissions, which leads to global warming and eventually climate change.
Also the eventual disposal of end of life electronics and the resultant e-waste adds to environmental concerns. A major part of the world’s e-waste is disposed either by landfilling or by informal scrappers who use primitive methods to extract metals. When e-waste is dumped in landfills, numerous e-waste toxins are released into the surrounding ecosystem over time, which causes soil and groundwater pollution and adversely affects nearby communities. When e-waste ends up in the informal sector, unsafe and hazardous techniques like open air incineration and acid stripping, are used for recovering metal from e-waste. Environmental pollution resulting from such processes is caused by the release hazardous elements such as mercury, lead and cadmium directly into the atmosphere. These toxins eventually accrue in the environment and sooner or later end up harming humans either by entering the food chain or through respiratory exposure. Also open air incineration of electronic product containing plastics and PVC releases harmful dioxides as well as GHG into the atmosphere resulting in several health problems as well as global warming. However, recycling e-waste responsibly and recovering reusable resources from e-waste in an environmentally safe manner can help not just curb the pollution caused by e-waste but also significantly help lower carbon emissions and thereby check global warming. Let us take a look.
How Recycling E-waste can help Lower GHG emissions & Global Warming?
Proper and eco-friendly recycling of e-waste can help tackle both e-waste pollution and global warming. Here’s how:
- Urban mining less energy intensive as compared to conventional mining
Conventional mining is the most commonly used technique of extracting raw materials required for the productions of consumables. This process has high energy consumption and high carbon emission. Other environmental effects of mining, which are an environmental concern, include deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, formation of sinkholes, and contamination of soil and potable water. The ore from mining needs to be processed further to render it usable, adding to carbon emissions. Also energy production requires burning of fossil fuel which results in a larger carbon footprint. Urban mining of e-waste on the other hand refers to eco-friendly extraction of reusable raw materials from e-waste. As compared to conventional mining, urban mining is relatively less energy intensive as it eliminates multiple high energy consumption processes, resulting in lower GHG emissions. Traditional mining generates huge amount of waste as well, which can be easily be avoided in case of urban mining.
- Source reduction through material substitution
When raw materials are obtained through recycling of old obsolete electronics, it relatively reduces the pressure on several of the earth’s natural resources. Several precious materials like gold, silver, copper as well as rare earth minerals can be recovered from recycling e-waste instead of mining for their ores. More importantly, the yield of recoverable resources from recycling e-waste is much higher as compared to the yield of material from conventional mining. For instance, a tonne of gold ore from a mine yields about 5 grams of gold on an average, while a tonne of mobile phones can produce up to 150 grams or more. So, recycling and urban mining e-waste offers a more feasible option as compared to conventional mining for raw materials. Also, the materials recovered by urban mining are in a ready to use condition and doesn’t require as much processing as virgin material from mined ore would. Furthermore, the natural resources of these raw materials are depleting rapidly, particularly in case of the rare earth elements. Recycling electronic junk to extract these resources from e-waste would be a more sustainable approach. This substitution of recovered material instead of virgin material further helps in reducing carbon emissions.
- Less energy required in order to produce new product from recovered raw materials
Producing consumables from recycled inputs usually needs relatively less energy, and thus lesser GHG emissions, when compared to producing items from virgin inputs. A study by EPA established that GHG emissions are significantly reduced when materials recovered from recycling are used for manufacturing new products as compared to manufacturing new products from virgin materials.
Recycling e-waste and urban mining can contribute in limiting the amount of carbon emissions and thereby help to put a check on global warming and climate change. So the next time you’ve got a broken down old gadget at your home, make sure you do your part to help the environment, and recycle it with a responsible e-waste recycler.