E-Waste Capstone

Making a Vicious Cycle Virtuous: Rare Earths as an E-Waste Case Study

A Capstone Project Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science of the University of Pennsylvania in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Environmental Studies, May, 2011.

Executive Summary:

The problems with electronic waste are well-documented. In the US, 82% of discarded electronics are landfilled or incinerated, while 18% are sent to recyclers (US EPA, 2008b). However, weak e-waste regulations and enforcement in the US contribute to an environment where exportation is more economically viable than recycling.

These situations arise because the regulatory environment fosters a vicious cycle: recycling is expensive, because electronics are not designed for recycling, because recycling is not mandated. The author refers to this as the e-waste cycle and examines its various inputs and outputs.

However, citing the success of European Union electronic waste legislation, it is suggested that thoughtful regulation and meaningful enforcement can set in motion a virtuous cycle. Policy can nurture a market where electronics are designed for easy recovery of valuable metals and other substances. This can make electronics recycling a more lucrative enterprise, encouraging used electronics to flow out of waste deposits and into inputs for new manufacturing, thereby reducing dependence on mining and other high-impact industrial processes.

These principles are applied to an anomalous, but not unpredictable, rare earth element embargo that took place in late 2010. Through this example, it is shown that the importance of building a regulatory environment that fosters electronics recycling, goes beyond harm reduction and virtuous cycles. It can be viewed as economic insurance against volatile global markets, and should be part of the US’s overall technology strategy.

Key Findings:

  • Weakness in US regulations leaves the economy unequipped to make electronics recycling financially viable. Thus, e-waste recycling rates in the US are low.
  • US failure to recycle electronic waste leads to environmental injustices and causes potentially valuable materials to flow to foreign scrap markets.
  • Markets for certain critical minerals, particularly rare earths, are extremely polarized. US lacks reliable sources of several materials necessary for electronics manufacturing and the continued development of renewable energy products. It also lacks key intellectual resources like patents and rare earth engineering expertise.