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Regional economic potential for recycling consumer waste electronics in the United States

Abstract

Waste electronics are a growing environmental concern but also contain materials of great economic value. If properly recycled, waste electronics could enhance the sustainability of vital metal supply chains by offsetting the increasing demand for virgin mining. However, rapid changes in the size and composition of electronics complicate their end-of-life management. Here we couple material flow and geospatial analyses on over 90 critical consumer electronic products and find that over 1 billion devices, representing up to 1.5 million tonnes of mass, could be discarded annually in the United States by 2033. Emerging electronics such as connected home, health and augmented/virtual reality devices have become the fastest-growing types in the waste stream. We highlight policy opportunities to develop various sustainable circularity strategies around metal supply chains by showing the potential to integrate waste electronics and virgin mining pathways in western US regions, while new infrastructure designed specifically for waste electronics treatment is favourable in the central and eastern United States. Furthermore, we show the importance of building national-level refining and tear-down databases to improve electronics end-of-life management in the next decade.

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Fig. 1: Scope and system boundary of this study.
Fig. 2: Temporal changes in waste electronics generation between 2015 and 2033.
Fig. 3: Spatial distribution of waste electronics resources, certified recyclers and major mining plants in the United States.
Fig. 4: The growth of representative types of waste electronics.
Fig. 5: Modelled distribution of gold from waste electronics in 2033 and areas where the generated waste can be handled by virgin gold plants for gold extraction.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information. The supplementary dataset is available at https://github.com/ppeng-cloud/Consumer-Electronics-Recycling-Potential-in-United-States.

Code availability

All steps used in this analysis are illustrated in the Methods and Supplementary Notes 16. Supplementary scripts are available at https://github.com/ppeng-cloud/Consumer-Electronics-Recycling-Potential-in-United-States and from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the United States Department of Energy and operated under contract grant no. DE-AC02-05CH11231. P.P. and A.S. acknowledge the Advanced Manufacturing Office of the Department of Energy for funding this research.

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Authors

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A.S. conceptualized the study, acquired the funding and supervised the project. P.P. wrote the original draft of the paper. P.P. and A.S. developed the methodology, conducted the investigation, provided the resources, curated the data, reviewed and edited the paper and visualized the results.

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Correspondence to Arman Shehabi.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Shahana Althaf and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Notes 1–6, Figs. S1 and S2 and Tables S1–5.

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Peng, P., Shehabi, A. Regional economic potential for recycling consumer waste electronics in the United States. Nat Sustain 6, 93–102 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00983-9

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