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E-waste management in the age of robotics

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Massive job loss, human-free production, and human-machine rivalry are dominating the discourse about the age of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI). But to fuel this intelligent machine age, a growing number of electronic devices are being produced. All those products such as computers, mobile phones, microwave oven, automated industrial machinery, and so forth eventually retire and end up into waste -known as e-waste. Moreover, our journey of making conventional industrial products starting from the smoke detector to automobile intelligent robotic devices is increasing electronic components in those products, resulting in accelerated growth of e-waste. It is one of the fastest growing waste streams in emerging as well as developed regions.

As reported in the Forbes, globally, the amount of e-waste was projected to reach 49.8 million tons in 2018, with an annual growth rate of 4-5 per cent.  The emergence of the electric vehicle is also contributing to e-waste - as batteries and additional electrical and electronic devices are added. The upgradation of those vehicles into self-driving will further add up to e-waste. Moreover, the reduced life spans of electrical, electronic and consumer electronic devices--fuelled by technology up-gradation and desire towards the adoption of new models, are generating large e-waste, which is growing rapidly every year.

Along the way, developing countries have become growing sources of e-waste. For example, India has emerged as the fifth largest electronic waste producer in the world. According to a study, Bangladesh produced around 400,000 metric tons of e-waste in 2018, which is likely to grow to over a million tons by 2035. Due to rapid urbanisation and economic growth, countries like Bangladesh are experiencing almost 20 per cent e-waste growth. In India, e-waste growth rate appears to be have reached an alarming state-as high as   Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of electronic waste is 30 percent--according to ASSOCHAM, an industrial body in India. China alone increased its waste to 6.7 million tons -- up 107 per cent from 2010 to 2015.

Indiscriminate dumping of e-waste is a serious environmental and health hazards, as they carry toxic substances like lead, chromium, and plastic additives among others. Often, e-waste ends up in a landfill. It appears that electronic waste account for 40 per cent of lead and 70 per cent of heavy metals found in landfills. These pollutants are responsible for groundwater contamination, air pollution, and soil acidification.

But e-waste is also precious. For example, each metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold, and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States. By processing eight tons of mobile phones, laptop PC and tablets, roughly 40 kg of gold, 4,920 kg of silver, and 2,944 kg of bronze could be extracted. The global e-waste management market is expected to garner $49.4 billion by 2020, registering a CAGR of 23.5 per cent during the reported forecast period 2014-2020. It is one of the fastest growing waste streams in emerging as well as developed regions.

In the age of robotics, the process of separating components and re-recycling them is highly manual. Profitable harvesting of precious metal from e-waste largely depends on the supply of low-cost labour and lenient environmental policies.  One of the main incentives for developed countries to export e-waste is that the cost of domestic e-waste disposal is higher than the revenue could be earned from the extracted metal. For this reason, China has become the global centre of e-waste recycling. Roughly 70 per cent of global e-waste ends up in China. North America is a leader in exporting e-waste to the developing countries such as China.  This exported e-waste is then recycled in developing regions which generate revenue for the market. It appears that in developing countries nearly 95 per cent of processing of electronic waste is carried out by the unskilled informal sector.

The world e-waste market is segmented by e-waste source and type. Appropriate technologies are needed to extract precious metals. For example, the technology for the extraction of cobalt from the lithium-ion battery is far different from the one used to extract gold or silver from the printed circuit board. Amongst all sources of e-waste such as IT and telecommunications and consumer electronics, refrigerator sets from household appliances are discarded in the highest number as compared to other appliances. The decrease in the life cycle of electronic products viz. computers, laptops, cell phones is generating a large amount of electronic waste in the North American region. The rapid change and high adoption of the smartphone have been changing the diversity of e-waste.

The key strategies adopted for e-waste management are expansion, partnership, and innovation. Top factors impacting world e-waste management market are: 1. decreasing life span of electronic devices would drive the e-waste management market, 2. high rate of obsolescence would add the e-waste in tremendous volume, 3. low awareness in developed regions slowing down the e-waste management activities, 4. the growing scarcity of precious metal, 6. lack of waste collection zones, 7. addition of new types of product such as IoTs and electric battery, 8. an evolving requirement of technologies to process emerging products, 9. increasingly stringent environmental regulation,  and 10. cost of recycling.

The rise of the age of robotics is, on the one hand, eroding labour-intensive jobs in developing countries and on the other, has been accelerating the addition of electronic components in virtually all industrial products making them Internet of Thing (IoT) or intelligent machines. As a result, e-waste has been increasing without any sign of slowing down. But due to large variations and unstructured nature of wastes, robots are highly incapable to sort and recycle them. This consequently contributes to the demand of labour-intensive jobs. In one hand, e-waste should be recycled to minimise environmental degradation. On the other hand, in absence of adequate e-waste recycling in extracting precious metal such as cobalt, gold, silver, and copper, the world will likely run out of the stock of those minerals before the exploitation of robotic age. 

With the progression of our civilisation in the machine age, e-waste will simply keep growing. We must recycle them to minimise harm and to make sure the supply of minerals go back to the production. In the foreseeable future, the labour-intensive manual process is going to dominate profitable recycling of e-waste. To leverage the market force of e-waste recycling in a safe manner, adequate measures should be taken in developing countries such as offering training, developing a regulatory framework, and assigning designated zones with suitable facilities. On the backdrop of decreasing demand of labour in the industrial economy, profitable e-waste management appears to be a growing opportunity for many developing countries. Both the advanced and developing countries should cooperate and share know-how as well as provide assistance so that competitive as well as safe e-waste recycling industry ecosystem could be established in developing countries  

M. Rokonuzzaman, PhD is Academic, and Researcher: Technology, Innovation and Policy.

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