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By Ines Flores

There is more to electronic e-waste than carelessly discarded batteries. The terminology includes all digital devices and appliances with the potential to be tossed into a landfill, including kitchen microwave ovens as well as old computers. The problem is growing, and not limited to wealthier consumer-oriented countries. Recycling and re-using Austin e-waste both responsibly and profitably is a common goal for many Texas municipalities.

Discarded electronics are more common today because basic economic conditions have improved enough worldwide to allow people to buy and use them. Because the devices are constantly being improved, there is virtually no emphasis on extending the life of older models. The highly-publicized toxic materials they contain grab sensational headlines, but are only one facet of the overall issue.

Inside each unit a variety of precious metals exists. Even though the original computer cathode ray display monitors are gone, any device containing a printed circuit board still contains a very small but financially significant amount of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium. Metals with more exotic names such as indium and gallium also play an important part in new technologies, and have a measurable value when extracted.

It is impractical to do that extraction on a personal basis, but in large quantities this modern form of mining produces more pure metal than the original ores. Comparatively rare and costly metallic elements are a small fraction of the materials used to manufacture a new smartphone, which also contain significant amounts of copper and other more common metals. The accompanying plastics can also be partially recycled.

The key to successful recycling is profitability. It can be performed on smaller scales by individuals, but the most efficient operations employ numbers of people. Most centers begin by separating individual components manually, removing both processors and microchips from the original housing. The remaining fragments are then run through a specialized chipper that shreds them and makes more intense separation possible.

After being re-mined in this fashion, the purified materials are resold to manufacturers. Business owners benefit because this saves them from buying new metals on the world market, and consumers also benefit from lowered production costs. While it is vitally important to recycle this form of waste properly to prevent environmental degradation, that is only one benefit of recycling.

Each year the collective mound of electronic garbage increases dramatically along with renewed efforts to promote proper disposal, but good intentions cannot keep pace with current rates of production. The associated health hazards have been proven, including mercury and lead poisoning. Children exposed to those materials often have multiple developmental problems, and adults suffer brain and respiratory issues.

The total amount of used electronic parts worldwide is very difficult to calculate or track using current methods. The problem was created in part by economic realities, and can be solved by using the same motivations. While it is important to remind populations about the physical health hazards of non-recycling, the best long-term solution is the continued development of industries that thrive on processing e-waste.

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