Poor electronic waste recycling is seeing millions of dollars worth of rare metals and scarce components consigned to landfill every year, an expert has revealed.

The haul includes silver, copper and other metals and components used in semiconductors, lasers and guidance systems crucial to developing industries.

With increasing global concerns about production and supply chains for metals and components used in electronics from mobile phones and computer hard drives to military equipment, the Australian government has made resources security a key priority, inking a deal with the US worth billions during the weekend G7 summit to supply critical minerals.

Darren Johannesen, from the waste recycling service Ecoactiv, told Central News: “Resource constraints are the number one reason why people have to sit and think about e-waste.

“It is terribly important to think about the wastage, but it is also terribly important to think about the future capacity for humanity to continue on its pathway. It’s well known as the fastest growing waste stream in the market.”

Johannesen believes electronic waste recycling is crucial to meeting the resource demands for future tech, which include magnets and battery components that will enable the transition to a cleaner fuel economy.

“A lot of the raw materials that are in those waste streams are becoming harder and harder to get,” he said.

Solar panels, he added are a prime example, with the silver contained in their components making up 0.5 per cent of a panel but worth 60 per cent of its total market value.

“Silver in the application of solar panels represents about half of the global demands for silver,” he said.

“It is [up to] $10 million worth of silver going into the ground every year.”

More recycling needed

He called for an increase in electronic waste recycling, where processed items are deconstructed into their raw materials, like silver and copper, which are then melted down to be reused.

Mr Johannesen warned if we don’t tackle the problem soon, we may experience a global resource shortage of raw materials.

“By 2050 we are going to be needing double the amount of silver, but in 2015 we are expected to start running out,” he said.

China, with its huge electronics industry, produces 55-70 per cent of rare earth metals mined and up to 90 per cent of rare earth metals processed globally. The current trade war between Western countries and China has sparked concerns that the supply of these rare conductive metals will be limited or cut off completely.

“[Resources] are becoming harder to get, therefore they’re becoming more expensive, and then we’ll hit capacity restraints,” Johannessen said.

According to Clean Up Australia, 88 per cent of the 4 million computers and 3 million TVs purchased in Australia each year, eventually end up in landfill.  And, 23,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions could be avoided if only half of the televisions discarded by Australians were recycled every year. E-waste is also responsible for 70 per cent of the toxic chemicals found in landfill.

We have a role and a responsibility in the management of the next phase of the life of that product.

The government has made some efforts to combat the issue. In 2011, The National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme was established which aims to reduce the waste to landfill, increase the recovery of reusable materials and provide convenient access to recycling services.

However, Johannessen believes an increased effort by the Australian people could be crucial to the future. “People are changing the way they consider and the way they understand their relationship with products,” he said.

“People are starting to think, well if I buy this what is next?”

“As individuals, we have a role and a responsibility in the management of the next phase of the life of that product.”

He also believes a market shift could play a crucial role in the future of electronic waste recycling.

“We are hearing a real open-mindedness to not just be factory orientated, but to think about things as having another opportunity,” he added.

“You can buy a brand new BMW from BMW, and you can buy a second-hand BMW from BMW, so why can’t you do that with other products?”

Main image by Way Out West News/Flickr.