The Possible Cure for Global e-Waste Problem

Video: Researchers at University of British Columbia may have just taken a significant step towards the zero-waste cellphone

The numbers behind smartphone waste are staggering. About 2 billion new phones are sold each year, and while many retailers, manufacturers, and waste management companies offer programs for e-waste recycling and resale, electronics still make up about 70 percent of the toxic waste in landfills. For example, according to Recode, the amount of gold currently sitting in landfills today is equivalent to about 11% of the gold mined each year.

The precious metals are a lucrative commodity for those willing to process the old electronics. If used phones can't be sold on the second-hand market, they typically wind up with e-waste recyclers who try to harvest the precious metals like silver, gold, palladium, and copper. While this is an improvement, it still leaves a lot of old phone components, like circuit boards, on the scrap heap.

Well, University of British Columbia researchers may have just taken a significant step towards the zero-waste cellphone. The researchers have created a process to separate fiberglass and resin, materials that are typically incinerated or tossed into a landfill after the metals have been harvested. In landfills, these components cause issues as they leach chemicals into the groundwater and soil.

The university's urban mining innovation center uses techniques, such as gravity separation, to process the fiberglass in an environmentally neutral way. The techniques isolate the fiberglass and resin based on the differences in their densities. After processing, the fiberglass can be used as a raw material for construction and insulation. If their process can be improved, it's possible that the fiberglass could even be used for new circuit boards.

The researchers have partnered with recycling company Ronin8 to try and develop a large-scale commercial model of the process. If successful, the technique could not only lead to a great reduction in e-waste but one day the elimination of electronics waste altogether.