Rapid urbanisation, improving living standards and increasing consumption has resulted in a large amount of waste around the world. Electronic waste is growing at a very rapid rate of 4-5% every year compared to other waste streams. Globally, around 42 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2014 and estimated to reach 50 million tonnes by 2018. E-waste products are everyday consumer items that include computers, televisions, smartphones, washing machines, air conditioners, freezers, hair dryers, electric toothbrushes, and vacuum cleaners.
E-waste contains over 1000 different substances. Some are toxic and hazardous, which cause serious problems to the environment and to human health. Large volumes of this e-waste are exported from industrialised economies like Australia to developing nations, where hand processing to recover metals like copper, silver, gold and palladium exposes poor communities to dangerous contaminants. Recycling e-waste makes sense for the economy, people’s wellbeing and the environment.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney, led a joint research team with the Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology (IMMT) in India investigating better, safer and more environmentally friendly ways to recycle e-waste.
One of the main difficulties encountered during the processing of e-waste is due to the inherent complexity and variability of waste. With polymers, non-metals and metals among the main components of e-waste, a discarded item can contain up to 1000 different substances. The challenge is to be able to recycle those substances so they become useful again. In their research, Professor Sahajwalla and her team made a major scientific breakthrough underpinned by precise control of processing conditions, including temperature. They were successful in untangling the complexity of e-waste and decoupling the thermal transformation of key constituents.
As part of the research, UNSW hosted a number of Indian researchers participating in the joint project, and research and analysis was jointly undertaken both at IMMT and at UNSW.