Electronic Waste Recycling

E-waste Recycling Introduction

E-Waste Recycling is more important than ever before. As of 2021, the average American has more than ten electronic devices in their household, including laptops, PCs, and at least two cell phones. Businesses and institutions operate many pieces of IT equipment on their premises, and in many cases, issue several devices to their employees.

Much of this hardware is intentionally designed to have a short service life, after which the equipment is replaced by more advanced models of the same type or entirely new devices that improve on performance. In 2020, the average desktop system in the consumer sector was replaced after the age of six years. With over 157,000,000 adults in the US with computers, this means that an average of 26,000,000 desktop computers and laptops are being replaced each year. Corporate IT equipment usage often has even shorter life spans with many companies replacing laptops and servers every 3 – 4 years.

With this design for quick obsolescence, there are companies that recycle electronics for cash which helps recycle old electronics such as television sets, desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones from ending up in landfill sites.

According to a recent study by the UN, about 50 million tons of such material were discarded worldwide as e-waste.

What is E-Waste?

E-waste is an umbrella term and general abbreviation for Environmental or Electronic waste, consisting of materials and products containing substances that may be damaging or harmful to health or the environment, and whose proper disposal typically requires special handling and techniques.

Much of this material originates in IT equipment and other electronic devices; e-waste has become largely synonymous with “Electronic waste” and describes used electronic devices which are nearing the end of their useful service life. These devices are then thrown away, donated to charities or other institutions, or sent to a recycling service.

E-waste is sometimes referred to as “end-of-life electronics”, “e-scraps”, or “e-scrap”. The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) considers e-waste to be a sub-category of used electronics and “recognizes the inherent value of these materials that can be reused, refurbished or recycled to minimize the actual waste that might end up in a landfill or improperly disposed of in an unprotected dump site either in-country or abroad.”

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What is E-Waste Recycling?

In simple terms, e-waste recycling is the reuse of old electronic devices or the reprocessing of electronic waste to extract or recover materials that can then be reused in new electronic products or other manufacturing processes.

As mentioned earlier, the majority of electronic products typically end up in landfills, with only somewhere between 12.5% to 20% of e-waste being currently recycled. This is a huge missed opportunity.

Electronic goods often contain valuable materials such as iron, aluminum, gold, silver, copper, tin, titanium, and fossil fuels. Other materials like plastics, metals, and glass used in fabricating electronic devices can be recovered, reused, and recycled. For instance, in a 2015 report, Apple revealed that it had recovered 2,204 pounds of gold — worth some $40 million — from recycled iPhones, iPads, and desktop Macs. And according to the EPA, recycling one million cell phones can recover 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 35,000 pounds of copper, and 33 pounds of palladium.
So e waste recycling facilitates the recovery of various valuable materials from used electronics. In addition, the reuse aspect of e-waste recycling helps to cut down on production waste. As an illustration, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition reckons that it takes 1.5 tons of water, 530 pounds of fossil fuel, and 40 pounds of chemicals to manufacture a single computer and monitor. And 81% of the energy associated with a computer is used during production and not during operation.

Benefits of E-Waste Recycling

Besides recovering valuable metals and other materials — thereby saving and conserving existing natural resources – there are other benefits of recycling electronic waste. Recycling enables manufacturers to source their raw materials from recycled waste. The recycling ecosystem is also creating new jobs, with growing demand for the skills needed in extracting usable raw materials from e-scraps.

In its observations on the economic benefits of E-waste recycling, the Environmental Protection Agency notes that in a single year, recycling activities in the US provided 757,000 jobs, $6.7 billion in tax revenues, and $36.6 billion in wages. As a simple mathematical correlation, for every thousand tons you recycle, there are 1.57 jobs created, $76,000 in wages paid, and $14,101 in tax revenues.
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E-waste recycling also shines a spotlight on environmental protection by emphasizing the proper handling, processing, and management of hazardous waste materials and toxic substances such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. And from a practical standpoint, the recycling of e-waste is reducing pressure on already over-stressed landfill sites and incinerators.

The reduction of e-waste volumes at landfill sites is also beneficial to the environment. Some two-thirds of waste on landfill sites is biodegradable and capable of breaking down into its constituent elements. This process often releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, contributing to global warming.

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What Materials are Involved in E-Waste Recycling?

Numerous materials are suitable for recycling. They include:


Precious metals such as gold and platinum can yield monetary value through direct sale or find use as components in specialist manufacturing processes. Ferrous metals like iron or titanium may be used for steel and alloy production in various applications.


Glass extracted from Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) in televisions and computer monitors can be reprocessed for use in other products.


A variety of plastic materials recovered from electronic goods may be reprocessed to create numerous other items such as trays, fence posts, equipment holders, and insulators.

Circuit Boards

Electronic circuit boards often incorporate traces of valuable metals such as gold, silver, tin, copper, and palladium.


Specialist recycling services can recover steel, cadmium, nickel, and cobalt for reuse in new batteries. The base metals recovered from old batteries may also be employed in fabricating stainless steel.

Hard Disk Drives

Besides ensuring data security and secure hard drive disposal, HDD shredder and hard drive destruction processes can also yield aluminum ingots used in manufacturing automobiles.


Though highly toxic, mercury is present in many kinds of electronic waste and can be safely extracted using specialist recycling techniques. Once recovered, the liquid metal has applications in the making of fluorescent lights, dental amalgams, and various instruments and meters.

Obsolete Equipment

E-Waste Recycling Methodologies

Given the diversity of materials involved, a variety of recycling techniques exist. However, most processes involved in recycling e waste follow a set pattern, with common elements that include:

Collection and Transportation

Recycling services or organizations will typically set up specialist bins or take-back booths for the collection of used equipment and waste materials. They will usually provide some form of transport to move the material to recycling facilities and plants.

Shredding and Sorting

Mechanical shredders will break the E-waste down into smaller fragments, which are then primarily sorted by hand or under strict human supervision to separate desired components or material types. Materials are then classified into various categories (Reusable, Core Material, Component, etc.).

Extraction of Dust

E-waste fragments are positioned on a conveyor belt, using a shaking process to smooth out the layers of material. The material is then subjected to further crushing, then suction to extract dust particles which may then be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

Magnetic Separation

For ferrous (magnetic) materials, a powerful suspended magnet is used to recycle steel and other magnetically sensitive metals from the e-waste stream.

Water Separation

Glass reclaimed from Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) typically contains several hazardous substances, including lead. Having removed the metals from CRT shards through magnetic separation, special washing lines are employed to clear phosphors and oxides from the glass. Sorting is then employed to separate non-leaded from leaded gas.

Preparation of Recycled Materials for Sale

At this final stage of the IT asset disposal process, the various materials separated out during the preceding stages are prepared and packaged for onward sale.

Purification of the Waste Stream

This method is used to locate and extract any leftover metals from plastic shards.

E-Waste Recycling Laws

The International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN) is a network of government officials who gather annually to exchange best practices and learn from experts the best ways to improve the management of used electronics in their own countries.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) works on a bilateral basis with governments and environmental officials around the world on e-waste management. USEPA and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (Taiwan EPA) jointly coordinate the International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN), which was established in 2011 and brings together environmental officials from Canada, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, to exchange best practices on e-waste management.
The EPA also collaborates with the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP or Step) initiative EXIT to jointly address the e-waste problem in developing countries. Formerly under the United Nations University (UNU) as UNU-Step, the initiative has developed a tool to help gather information on the volumes of e-waste generated within countries and exported to others.

In March 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency participated in the launch of the UNIDO-GEF project, “Strengthening of National Initiatives and Enhancement of Regional Cooperation or the Environmentally Sound Management of POPs in Waste of Electronic of Electrical Equipment (WEEE).”

The E-Waste Picture in the United States

In the US, the EPA supports the United States government’s National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. This strategy document lays out details of the federal government’s plan to enhance the management of electronics throughout the product life cycle.

In October 2016, the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) released a study conducted by MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The research identifies the flow of electronics trade from and within North America and involved assessing and mapping the flows of electronics, including items exported from the US.

At present, 25 states in the US have laws mandating statewide e-waste recycling. Several more states are currently working toward the passage of new legislation and are improving their existing e-waste management policies. As of February 2021, 65% of the US population are subject to state e waste recycling laws, and in some states, e-waste is banned from landfill sites. These include California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Indiana.

E-Waste Recycling Associations

Specialist organizations dedicated to promoting e-waste recycling policies and best practices include:

Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) :

Canada's leading e-waste recycling industry association.

Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) :

This includes over 130 member companies that operate around 300 e waste recycling facilities in the US.

Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) :

This includes over 130 member companies that operate around 300 e waste recycling facilities in the US.

Institute of Recycling Industries (ISRI) :

An industry association with 1600 member companies, 350 of which are e waste recycling services.

What you Should Expect from an E-Waste Recycling Service

If you’re based in Canada or the US and are looking for an e-waste recycling company, you can contact your city’s recycling coordinator for recycling companies near you.

A number of companies specializing in e-waste recycling or offer recycling as part of a broader e-waste management service exist. If you’re looking to engage with a privately owned e-waste recycling service, bear the following points in mind:
  • They should clearly document the Chain of Custody for all IT equipment handling and data sanitization procedures.

  • A certificate of hard drive destruction should be provided for all storage media they destroy.

  • Look for free on-site assessment of your electronic assets and/or free quotations to ascertain the value of your IT equipment to be recycled.

  • Certain provinces and states have mandates governing how much weight or volume of e-waste material may be transported at a time. Ask the company about their procedures for dealing with such restrictions.

  • Check that the company is using legally sanctioned and ecologically safe methods of transport, recycling, and disposal.

  • Check for ISO and other certifications to ensure they are compliant and following zero-landfill guidelines.