JUN 20, 2021 6:25 AM PDT

Illuminating the dark side of e-waste recycling

A new study published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling evaluates the shortcomings of electronics recycling in an effort to shed light on the complexity of e-waste. The study comes from the Hypothetical Materials Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering and offers a framework to grapple with the multi-step decisions that are put on the shoulders of recyclers, with the intention to expose how digital fraud prevention facilitates dishonest recycling practices. 

"Electronics have huge environmental impacts across their life cycle, from mining rare raw materials to the energy-intensive manufacturing, all the way to the complicated e-waste stream," said Christopher Wilmer, who is an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and heads up the Hypothetical Materials Lab. "A circular economy model is well-suited to mitigating each of these impacts, but less than 40 percent of e-waste is currently estimated to be reused or recycled. If our technology is going to be sustainable, it's important that we understand the barriers to e-waste recycling."

Dishonest recycling practices include illegally shipping e-waste to other countries, dumping e-waste in landfills, and stockpiling e-waste - all while advertising clean-and-green recycling. The Basel Action Network used GPS trackers to track electronics delivered to U.S. recyclers between 2014 and 2016, finding that 30% of the electronics were ultimately shipped abroad.

"The main barrier to honest recycling is its cost," said lead author Daniel Salmon. "One of our main findings is that if we find a way to make it more profitable for companies to recycle, we will have less dishonest recycling. Targeted subsidies, higher penalties for fraud, and manufacturers ensuring their electronics are more easily recyclable are all things that could potentially solve this problem."

In situations where more supervision is available, the team recommends employing blockchain as neutral, third-party supervision that could help reduce fraudulent recycling practices.

"Our model mentions the influence of monitoring and supervision, but self-reporting by companies enables dishonesty. On the other hand, something like the blockchain does not," said Wilmer, who founded Ledger, the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrency. "Relying on an immutable record may be one solution to prevent fraud and align behaviors across recyclers toward a circular economy."

Sources: Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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