Editorial Feature

From Trash to Treasure: How Robots are Salvaging E-Waste

Here, we explore the role of robots in e-waste recycling, the technological advancements, and the challenges and future of robots in e-waste recycling. 

E-waste heap from discarded laptop parts. Connectors, PCB, notebook cards. Colorful blurry background from PC components. Idea of electronics industry, eco, sorting and disposal of electronic waste.

Image Credit: KPixMining/Shutterstock.com

Introduction to E-Waste Recycling

Almost every aspect of modern-day life is surrounded by electronic equipment. Every machine we use in daily life, whether cars, washing machines, mobile phones or other machines, has electronic components. However, just like any other component of a machine, these electronic components of devices have a limited lifetime, and they expire or become damaged with time, converting into e-waste. This e-waste contains hazardous materials like lead, mercury, and cadmium, which can be devastating for the environment if not managed or recycled properly.

Traditionally, e-waste has been recycled manually, involving direct contact of the waste with the labor, causing serious health and safety risks. However, just like many other industries, robotics has been utilized in e-waste management and recycling, reducing the associated health and safety risks.

Challenges of E-Waste Management

As e-waste comes from a variety of machines, its content varies a lot, requiring different recycling methods and techniques. For instance, e-waste obtained from a car has different components to that of mobile phones; hence, recycling such e-waste that has a variety of components is challenging.

According to Global E-Waste Monitor, only 17.4 % of 53.6 million metric tons (MT) of e-waste produced in 2019 was formally collected and recycled. E-waste management-related challenges also vary with the regions due to various reasons, including the amount of e-waste produced, government policies, economic conditions, public awareness, etc. For instance, a recent study highlights and compares the e-waste production of different regions, including Asia, Africa, and North America. According to the study, e-waste produced by Africa, America, Asia, and Europe is 2.9, 13. 1, 24.9, and 12 MT, respectively, which comes out to be 2.5, 13.3, 5.6 and 16.3 kgs per person in the respective regions with a global increase of 3-5% annually.

Role of Robots in E-Waste Salvaging

Nearly every modern industry utilizes robots for fast, precise, accurate and safe working conditions. Advanced robots reduce the human effort and risks involved in industrial processes with many other benefits like nonstop, rapid pace working with minimal errors.

E-waste recycling also requires robots for better management of electronics and electric components. Advanced robots with visual sensors allow the identification, categorization, and separation of different types of e-waste. For instance, In a 2023 study addressing the challenge of e-waste recycling, researchers implemented a 6-axis robotic manipulator to create a semi-automated industrial robotic system with collaborative human-robot interaction. The system, employing OpenCV image capture, TCP connections, and Arduino integration, aims to detect, disassemble, and segregate components of commonly discarded e-waste for proper disposal and recycling.

The study emphasizes the hazardous nature of e-waste, containing valuable resources worth an estimated $57 billion in 2019. This robotic system offers a potential solution to manage the complexity and volume of e-waste, enhancing recovery rates and addressing environmental concerns.

How a robot recycles our electronic waste – BBC News

Technological Advances in Robotic E-Waste Recycling

The technological advancements in robotics have impacted the e-waste recycling process. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms have enabled robots to adapt and learn from different e-waste scenarios, improving their accuracy and efficiency over time. For instance, researchers in a 2024 study have proposed VEIDD (Visual recognition of parts, Evaluation of estimated recovery value, Intactness analysis, Difficulty assessment in processing, and support for final recovery Decisions), a multi-criteria decision support system (DSS) that combines AI visual recognition with a multi-fuzzy model for optimal End-of-Life (EoL) recovery routes.

The system demonstrated through pilot implementation and case studies, emphasizes the benefits of fully automated, reliable, and efficient EoL management. The introduced AI-driven system leverages visual recognition, evaluation, intactness analysis, and difficulty assessment to streamline material recovery processes. The study envisions VEIDD as a transformative tool in automated material recovery facilities, contributing to sustainable and efficient e-waste recycling.

Similarly, another study proposes a robotic e-waste fractionation strategy utilizing X-ray technology to analyze the internal structures of electronic devices without manual disassembly. By generating cutting lines based on X-ray data, a high-pressure waterjet cutter is used to autonomously separate components, enhancing recycling rates. The method achieves clean fractions, avoids inseparable material mixtures, and adheres to EU directives for critical component removal and demonstrates this process with a cordless screwdriver, illustrating its potential application to diverse e-waste.

Impact and Future of Robotic E-Waste Salvaging

Robots in e-waste recycling have already significantly impacted the industry by improving efficiency and precision, leading to increased recovery rates of valuable materials from electronic devices. In terms of health and safety and environmental impact, robots have reduced manual labor, and toxic material handling, minimizing the risks to human health and the environment.

Similarly, robotics is expected to also make a great future impact by continued advancements in AI and machine learning, likely enhancing the capabilities of e-waste recycling systems. Innovations in robotic design and functionality will lead to more versatile and adaptable systems capable of handling the e-waste from advanced electronic devices. As the demand for electronic devices continues to grow, robotic systems can be implemented on a larger scale to meet the challenges posed by the increasing volume of e-waste, ensuring that robotic e-waste recycling remains a viable and sustainable solution in the long run.

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References and Further Reading

Alvarez-de-los-Mozos, E., & Renteria, A. (2017) Collaborative robots in e-waste management. Procedia Manufacturing. doi.org/10.1016/j.promfg.2017.07.133

Álvarez-de-los-Mozos, E., et al. (2020) WEEE recycling and circular economy assisted by collaborative robots. Applied Sciences. doi.org/10.3390/app10144800

Brazier, J. P., & Prasetyo, J. (2023) Robotic Solution for the Automation of E-waste Recycling. Journal of Applied Science and Advanced Engineering. doi.org/10.59097/jasae.v1i1.9

Duddek, M., et al. (2023) X-ray Based Robotic E-Waste Fractionation for Improved Material Recovery. Materials Circular Economy. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42824-022-00072-4

Forti, V., et al. (2020) The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. Available at: https://collections.unu.edu/view/UNU:7737

Shittu, O. S., et al. (2021) Global E-waste management: Can WEEE make a difference? A review of e-waste trends, legislation, contemporary issues and future challenges. Waste Management. doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2020.10.016

Simaei, E., & Rahimifard, S. (2024). AI-based decision support system for enhancing end-of-life value recovery from e-wastes. International Journal of Sustainable Engineering. doi.org/10.1080/19397038.2024.2306293

Sipka, S. (2021). Towards circular e-waste management: How can digitalization help? EPC Discussion Paper. Available at: http://aei.pitt.edu/id/eprint/103731

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Taha Khan

Written by

Taha Khan

Taha graduated from HITEC University Taxila with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. During his studies, he worked on several research projects related to Mechanics of Materials, Machine Design, Heat and Mass Transfer, and Robotics. After graduating, Taha worked as a Research Executive for 2 years at an IT company (Immentia). He has also worked as a freelance content creator at Lancerhop. In the meantime, Taha did his NEBOSH IGC certification and expanded his career opportunities.  

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