E-Waste Plastic Broken Down: Not A Pretty Picture

As the amount of electronic waste grows worldwide, more attention is being place on potentially hazardous materials that lurk in the cast-off electronics. Researchers from Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) were recently honored for work that offered new insight for recyclers into which products contain hazardous materials, where and in what proportion.

The Swiss team, whose report on the topic won the Best Paper Award in the policy analysis category from Environmental Science & Technology, focused on the plastic components that make up more than 20 percent of electrical and electronic appliances. Those plastics can contain brominated flame retardants and other additives made of heavy metal concentrations. And, if a those metal concentrations are too high,  recycling has to be ruled out unless further action is taken.

recycling electronic waste

image via Empa

The three Empa researchers, Patrick Wäger, Mathias Schluep and Esther Müller, with assistance from Bachema AG in Schlieren, Switzerland, studied 53 different mixed plastic samples from 15 European countries. What they found was each group had its own set of problems. Brominated flame retardants or heavy metals were found in all the mixed plastics from disassembled electrical and electronic equipment, though concentration levels varied.

High concentrations of restricted brominated flame retardants were found in plastic  panels from cathode ray tube monitors, although not in plastic rear panels from flat screen monitors. Large amounts of heavy metals like cadmium, were also found in plastics from domestic appliances, while lead was found in many consumer electronics. To prevent hazardous substances from dissipating into the environment, the researchers recommend that plastics from the processing of electrical and electronic equipment should be subject to strict quality management until such time as they are disposed of or recycled.

Those interested in reading more about the topic find the paper in the April issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Kristy Hessman is a writer and native Oregonian who currently resides in California. Before starting her own company, she worked as a reporter covering business and politics for daily newspapers and The Associated Press.