With International E-Waste Day, October 14, fast approaching, we have spoken to MSc student Kean Ming Yong about the environmental impact of the formal versus the informal recycling sector. Kean recently conducted a comparative life cycle assessment study of informal and formal recycling procedures of mobile phones at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

When you have read this post, try our E-Waste quiz and test your knowledge on this topic.

Can you introduce yourself and why you have chosen to look into e-waste?

Of course! I’m Kean and have recently graduated from my Masters programme in Environmental Resource Management. In my research, I investigated the impact of e-waste on human health and the environment because I wanted to understand more about what happened to electronic products after we have used and discarded them.

Why are you interested in e-waste?

E-waste is currently the fastest growing waste stream in the world. I was shocked to discover that almost 50 million tonnes of e-waste is discarded every year. Only a small percentage of this is recycled, which means that the majority of waste is not recycled for their valuable resources. This has huge implications not only on the natural resources, but also on the environment. With big challenges, there are also huge opportunities in order to make this waste stream more circular.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of e-waste? When did people realize it was an issue and how did the discussion come to light?

Electronic waste has been around for several decades. However, it became clear that there was an urgent need for proper recycling when the effects of improper disposal started to be seen in the environment. When electronics are dumped or disposed of inappropriately, the chemicals within electronics are absorbed into the soil, groundwater, and into the air. Several legal frameworks and agreements, such as the WEEE directive and Basel Convention, were established in order to solve this issue. However, much still has to be done to recycle electronics in a proper manner.

What are the main issues you see with recycling today?

There is an immense amount of electronic products being produced, used, and continually discarded on a global level. A lot of people are not aware that their electronics, such as their mobile phone, contain many finite precious metals such as gold, palladium and silver. When their phones end up in landfill, these materials are not recovered, leading to further depletion of our natural resources. Another issue is when e-waste is exported to developing countries, where it is often dumped in open fields and dismantled under horrific conditions and posing a severe risk to human health and the environment.

Tell us how formal and informal recycling works?

The process for recycling involves the dismantling, shredding, and/or smelting electronics to recover valuable materials. Typically, developed countries have access to proper recycling facilities that ensure electronics are recycled in a proper manner. However, dev