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Breakthrough Opens New Doors for Developing the First Zero-waste Cell Phone

12 April 2018

Zero waste is a popular trend among people trying to be as eco-friendly as possible. The zero-waste trend is really speeding up in 2018. With the ever-looming threat of global warming, people want to do all they can to save the planet. Technology developers are even jumping on the trend. Researchers from the University of British Columbia recently made a major breakthrough in creating the world’s first zero-waste phone.

The UBC researchers have perfected the process to separate fiberglass and resin. These two parts of our phones are the most commonly thrown away parts of phones. The separation of the components is a huge step in creating a zero waste phone.

UBC researchers have perfected a process to efficiently separate fiberglass and resin -- two of the most commonly discarded parts of a cellphone -- bringing them closer to their goal of a zero-waste cellphone. Source: Clare Kiernan, UBCUBC researchers have perfected a process to efficiently separate fiberglass and resin -- two of the most commonly discarded parts of a cellphone -- bringing them closer to their goal of a zero-waste cellphone. Source: Clare Kiernan, UBC

"Discarded cell phones 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," said UBC mining engineering professor Maria Holuszko, who led the research. "The challenge is to break down models that can no longer be reused into useful materials — in a way that doesn't harm the environment."

Currently, e-waste recycling organizations are mainly focusing on useful metals like gold, silver, copper and palladium because they can be reused to create other products. The nonmetal parts of cell phones, like fiberglass and resins, are typically fed to incinerators or put in landfills because they are hard to process and less valuable. If these materials are sent to a landfill, they can leach hazardous chemicals into the groundwater, soil and air.

"The key here is gravity separation, which efficiently separates the fiberglass from the resin by using the differences in their densities. The separated fiberglass can then be used as a raw material for construction and insulation. In the future, if we can find a way to improve the quality of the recycled fiberglass, it may even be suitable for manufacturing new circuit boards," said Kumar.

The team is currently looking for ways to create a large-scale commercial model of their recycling process. They partnered up with Ronin8, a recycling company that separates plastics, fibers, metals and electronic waste without toxins or losing any of the precious metals.

"Ronin8 has developed an innovative e-waste process for electronic waste that aims to address the intrinsic faults in traditional e-waste processes today," said Travis Janke, director of engineering at Ronin8. "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."

"We need a better way to manage our electronic hardware recycling, and a cost-effective, environmentally responsible method of mining e-waste for valuable materials would be a good step in that direction," said Holuszko.

The paper on the new breakthrough in zero waste cellphone was published in Waste Management.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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