Zero-Waste Cell Phones May Soon Be a Reality

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Pile of Used Cell Phones

“Discarded cellphones are a huge, growing source of electronic waste, with close to two billion new cell phones sold every year around the world, and people replacing their phones every few years.”
–Dr. Maria Holuszko, Lead Researcher and Professor of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia

On UniGuide, I’ve written about eco-friendly cell phone cases, but what about the cell phones themselves? While phone cases that are made with plastic and other un-sustainable materials are not desirable, cell phones also present environmental problems when they’re thrown away.

While some parts of your cell phone can be recycled (as long as it’s disposed of properly, which means not throwing it into the trash), other parts – not so much.

When it comes to recycling cell phones and other e-waste, the focus is usually on recovering useful metals, such as gold, silver, copper, and palladium. These metals can be recycled and then used again in other products. But non-metal materials, like fiber glass and resin, which comprise a large portion of your everyday cell phone, are usually discarded, which means they’re either burned or added to the landfill. This results in hazardous chemicals entering our groundwater, soil, and air.

This is why the work by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is so groundbreaking: They’ve perfected a process to efficiently separate fiber glass and resin, so these materials can be re-used as well.

Zero-Waste Cell Phone Researchers Dr. Maria Holuszko and Amit Kumar, University of British Columbia
UBC mining engineering PhD candidate Amit Kumar and mining engineering professor Dr. Maria Holuszko. Photo: Clare Kiernan, UBC.

How did they do it? With one of the Earth’s most powerful natural forces: gravity.

Dr. Maria Holuszko, a professor of mining engineering at UBC, and the lead researcher on the project, along with PhD student Amit Kumar, developed a process that uses gravity separation and other simple physical techniques to separate the fiber glass and resins in a way that is not environmentally harmful.

Printed circuit board parts prior to processing in Dr. Holuszko's lab at UBC.
Printed circuit board parts prior to processing in Dr. Holuszko’s lab at UBC. Photo: Lou Bosshart, UBC.

 

Here’s a video with Dr. Holuszko talking about the process:

What’s next?

Bringing Zero-Waste Cell Phones to Mass Scale

The research team is now working on developing a scalable commercial model of the process. They’re partnering with Ronin8, a recycling company that already separates different plastics, fiber, and metals from electronic waste without using toxic chemicals in the process or losing the precious metals.

According to Ronin 8 director of engineering Travis Janke:

“Our vision is to achieve a zero-waste, end-of-life solution for electronics, and our work with Maria and Amit at UBC has moved us closer to this reality.”

To learn more about the research, contact Lou Bosshart at UBC at [email protected] and Travis Janke of Ronin 8 at [email protected].

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