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Is Recycling E-Waste Financially Sustainable?

By Chris Keenan

Pretty much all electronics from your laptop to your phone will at some point become e-waste.  You would easily be excused for asking, why is this type of outdated equipment worthy of its own “special” classification? Let’s just say this classification is ‘more preferable to what was originally known as; ‘hazardous electronics containing solid toxic waste’.  Of course, the term e-waste, has been created to easily group electrical products that, due to their toxicity, cannot be disposed of in any other way than recycling.  

You might be thinking why should we bother to recycle e-waste? It’s a sound question if your knowledge in the subject is limited. Honestly answered, the driving factors behind the motivation for recycling electronics can be boiled down to the 3 following words:



          1. Survival
          2. Profit
          3. Sustainability



Let me give you some examples of how e-waste can affect our survival. We all know that electronics such as computers contain toxins that if ingested can result in brain damage, cancer, and organ failure.  I’m not suggesting that there are people out there who are eating their old computers, it’s far worse.  It turns out that dumping our e-waste into landfill sites results in toxins seeping into the wider environment. You’ve probably read about the micro plastics recently found in humans.  There’s no question the toxification from failing to recycle has already begun.  Recycling is our best chance of survival, it prevents and helps to revers the damage caused by these dreadful carcinogenic pollutants. 


Making recycling profitable, is an incredibly important contributing factor towards improving the health and prolonged existence of mankind.  The desire to profit is an enabling force. In fact, profit is such a strong force some might even say that profits are more of a motivator than fear of death by toxification.  That said, the profits from recycling isn’t exactly sending the floor in Wall Street bonkers. We all know that in our capitalistic society if a service or industry can’t afford to pay its costs then it tends to fail.  You might be thinking, why doesn’t the government take on the duty of e-waste recycling, surely, it’s far too important to leave it to the free market? In terms of the government managing your recycling think of it like this, would you like to pay more non-negotiable taxes? or would you prefer to use businesses that are constantly investing into making better, more efficient, more affordable ways to recycle?  Let’s be honest the governments strengths are in regulating, not innovating. 


In terms of societal sustainability playing a factor in recycling it’s important to recognise that for any society to exist three basic requirements must be met.  They are simply, the abundance of; food, clothing and shelter.  All three of those require land.  Food is grown on land, houses are built on land, and the materials for clothing from cotton to leather require land.   One of the most land destructive industries known to man is mining!  Mining for gold, oil, metals, or silicon all require processes that devastate the environment.  Just to produce 1 oz (28g) of gold, takes the removal & destruction of 15,000 lbs (6.8 tonnes) of ore. Worse still are the refining processes which can utilize deadly chemicals and produce huge levels of carbon emissions.  One of the worst materials for mining and refining in the world, is aluminium.  You’ll find aluminium in most of our electronics.


So, what’s the good news?  The good news is that between 98% to 100% of e-waste can be recycled and innovation in recycling technology is booming.  Due to a recent advancement in aluminium recycling technology a small-scale recycling facility can reduce its CO2 emissions by as much as, 200,000 tonnes a year! Making recycling massively cleaner and less damaging the mining.  Already 1/3rd of the worlds’ gold comes from recycled sources.  It is now cheaper to recycle old copper than to mine and extract new copper. 71% of steel waste is recycled and Europe and North America have a lead battery recycling rate close to 100%.  This massive degree of recycling success contributes immensely to societal sustainability allowing innovation, job creation, economic stabilization, and cleaner agriculture to flourish. 


Who do we thank for this fantastic success? IT directors to facilities managers, from residents to CEO’s, we should thank those who make the choice to recycle. 


If recycling is so successful why are companies and tax payers, paying to have their e-waste recycled? The reality is we’re getting better at recycling but the value of what we’re recycling is unstable it goes up and down with the markets.  Despite the instability in the markets recycling workers still need to be paid and companies need to keep investing into the technology.   With that fact in mind is recycling e-waste only financially sustainable providing we pay for the service to continue?  The answer is yes.  It’s a service, much like you’d pay to have your old car toed away or pay to have your trash taken.  The sales of reclaimed materials just helps to subsidise the service.    


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