From fortified steel to e-art, think of your business e waste as an urban mine 

If you ever need a reminder of the value of responsibly recycling your business e waste, here comes an inspiring story.  As of this writing, Team USA has captured 77 medals in the Tokyo Olympic Games — all made of recycled electronics. 

When Lydia Jacoby, Bobby Finke, Suni Lee, Caeleb Dressel, and all the other winners display their medals, they also showcase the success of a major initiative to collect electronic waste across Japan in anticipation of the Olympics. 

Called the “Tokyo 2020 Medal Project,” it rallied everyone from the public at large to private companies to participate — and the response was overwhelming. All in all, the effort yielded 6.21 million used mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras, and handheld games. Contractors then classified, dismantled, and melted down the huge collection. The result: Olympic medals created out of 60.8 pounds of gold, 9,038 pounds of silver, and 5,950 pounds of bronze.

The story shows what being a participant in the circular economy can accomplish. When you recycle business e waste, you’re essentially turning retired electronics into urban mines of valuable materials. This means, for instance, a reduced need to exploit natural resources to feed the surging demand for electronic products. Furthermore, it means the drive to not only recycle but improve current techniques is picking up pace.

The general public is, for example, hardly aware innovation allows for the recycling of as much as 95% of lithium-ion batteries

Let’s look at two developments that flew under the radar lately. They both show just how much potential there is in recycling business e waste: 

1. E waste can boost steel hardness

From the Center for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, comes a significant finding: electronic waste can get recycled into strong, protective coatings for steel.

The finding shows the impact of the careful application of heat. It can selectively break and reform chemical bonds in electronic waste. As a result, the process creates new environmentally friendly materials. 

The researchers discovered copper and silica compounds in old printed circuit boards and computer monitors can create a hybrid material. The new durable material, in turn, can then be used to protect metal surfaces against corrosion and wear. Even a micron-thick hybrid layer increased surface hardness of steel by about 125%. It also remained firmly bonded to the steel without cracking or chipping even when subjected to pressure. 

Study senior author Veena Sahajwalla commented in IEEE Spectrum: 

“It is very exciting that these waste materials have a lot of valuable elements that could be reformed into brand-new products. To take just one example, some types of e-waste like printed circuit boards contain between 10% and 20% copper, while copper ore only contains up to 3%.

“For a long time, we have relied on mining to provide the raw materials we need, and we’ve thrown much of our waste into landfills. In the future, we may be mining those same landfill sites for our resources.”

2. Resource-friendly method developed for electrode recycling

Another finding with far-reaching implications comes from researchers at Aalto University in Finland. They announced in April a groundbreaking discovery — Cobalt-containing electrodes in lithium batteries can be reused after being newly saturated with lithium. 

The new method replenishes the spent lithium in the electrode through an electrolysis process and allows the cobalt compound to be directly reused. In essence, it is a more resource- and environmentally friendly approach that negates the need for a lengthy chemical process. The researchers now are turning their attention to the nickel-based batteries of electric cars. They aim to see if the same method could prove useful there, too. 

“By reusing the structures of batteries, we can avoid a lot of the labor and potentially save energy at the same time,” says Aalto Professor Tanja Kallio in Recycling Today. “We believe that the method could help companies that are developing industrial recycling.”

Isn’t that President Biden…?

And, finally, if Olympic medals seemed like an exciting end destination for your business e waste, let us introduce Mount Recyclemore, a sculpture portraying the heads of the G7 leaders and made entirely out of e-waste. The piece of e-art aimed to draw attention to the global e-waste challenge.

So, what can you do to help minimize the impact of business e waste? Entrusting your retired electronics to an R2-certified electronics recycler is a good place to start. In the right hands, your IT assets will enter the circular economy. 

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