Electronic Recycling: From Trash to Treasure!

Microfactories can tackle e-waste and provide job opportunities.


Plastic particles from Electronic Recycling

(Extarz / Shutterstock.com)

In WALL-E, a science fiction movie from Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, a little robot is responsible for cleaning a world covered in garbage; a world where there is no longer room for anything else, not even humans!

And like a prophecy about a not-too-distant future, the film encourages common people, worldwide leaders and entrepreneurs to ask the obvious question: What can be done to prevent something like this happening? For some, microfactories could become the most promising answer.

Veena Sahajwalla, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has discovered a solution to the challenging waste problem. Her one-stop approach could go beyond the existing recycling processes, discovermagazine.com reveals.

Her invention, waste microfactories, mainly targets electronic waste and plastic, and are essentially little trash processors. These can transform waste into new materials with the help of thermal technology. 

“Our e-waste microfactory and another under development for other consumer waste types offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities to our cities but importantly to our rural and regional areas, too,” Professor Sahajwalla said during the innovation’s launch at UNSW Sidney, as detailed in the university’s news release.

“Using our green manufacturing technologies, these microfactories can transform waste where it is stockpiled and created, enabling local businesses and communities to not only tackle local waste problems, but to develop a commercial opportunity from the valuable materials that are created,” she explains.

And the way these modular microfactories work is fascinating too. Firstly, as thehindu.com details, no more than 50 square meters are needed to operate them, so they can be located anywhere, reducing long, high-emission journeys between manufacturing plants and recycling processors.

In the first module, the discarded computers, mobile phones and printers are broken down. Next, in another module, a special robot is responsible for identifying useful parts. Once this process is completed, a third stage involves transforming those pieces into valuable materials using controlled heat.

Is a waste-filled future so unlikely? Humans generate 2.01 billion tons of solid waste annually, a World Bank report details. And as the fastest growing waste stream, approximately 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste were generated globally by 2019, according to statista.com

Despite current efforts, only 17.4 percent of this is known to have been collected and properly recycled. Meanwhile, worldwide e-waste generation is expected to continue to grow, reaching almost 80 million metric tons by 2030, forecasts show.

Although the most effective solution to address the waste challenges would be not to generate as much trash, Sahajwalla microfactories provide hope for all the waste that already exists. Her solution not only decreases the amount of waste, but it also improves its management and enables new manufacturing opportunities around the new materials created. 

Wall-E shows us the best and the worst of what human beings have to offer. It depicts where the world is headed unless the human species slows down and stops accumulating at the current pace. But it also provides hope, showing that we also have a great capacity to change and improve. 

Breakthrough innovations such as these waste microfactories, can become the single green leaf that the startled robot finds among endless piles of trash. They can bring the world closer to zero-waste and a brighter future.

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