electronic waste
The electronic waste is increasing rapidly in the world. If we increase both the reuse and the collection of electronic waste, environmental impact and resource use can decrease. Photo: Pixabay.

Yesterday's computer could be tomorrows goldmine

​How many computers do you have at home? Several of us probably have a smaller collection. Smartphones and computers offer fantastic opportunities. But there is a downside to humans and the planet. Sofia Nygård and the Chalmers IT Office work to make Chalmers more sustainable, especially when it comes to hardware.
Sofia Nygård“In my own closet I actually have zero old computers. The IT office have events, "Återtag" reuse, where you also can hand in your private equipment. I have taken advantage of that. Chalmers equipment can be hand in at any time. Even though I am not a researcher, I know that it is important to use a product as long as possible and then reuse it as much as possible”, says Sofia Nygård, Head of Unit, at Chalmers' IT office.

At Chalmers, laptops are used for an average of four years, and desktops for five. Every computer can almost be reused. The IT office works actively with students and employees to make them bring in old computers. After collecting the computers, a company deletes all data, reinstalls the computer and removes all labels so that it cannot be tracked to Chalmers. After that, it goes to the Nordic market. The end is material recycling, the computers that can't be reused go directly to recycling.

“We slowly started with "Återtag" in the autumn of 2018. It was an easy way to combine Chalmers' vision for a sustainable future and at the same time ensure that all our researchers and teachers have equipment that is functional and easy for us in the IT office to handle”, says Sofia Nygård who is the initiator of "Återtag".

“The researchers must have appropriate equipment. But the equipment at Chalmers was far too poor and too old. To get the researchers to let go of the equipment, we needed to find a way without contributing to more e-waste. The risk is that one's computer will end up in Africa and that a child will burn cables and plastic to get hold of valuable metals”, says Sofia. So, to succeed in managing sales, and the e-waste that is generated, the IT Office works in many ways.

“It is important to have an active work on sustainability, both in collaboration with our suppliers, those who own the IT systems, to influence and make demands on the industry, but also for different partners. Internally at Chalmers, our ambition is to create guidance on how to save our documents, preferably in the cloud and on file servers, so that it will be easier to hand in when that day comes”, says Sofia Nygård and gives examples.
“Now we are looking at whether Chalmers can purchase recycled phones directly. An example is smartphones that have been used for two years. It saves money and CO2. It's the same with recycled printers. We also take an active part in the public discussion. Most recently in Aktuell Hållbarhet with the debate article It-köpare - det är tid att agera”.

Other initiatives are:
  • ​The new platform, Chalmers recycling website, reuse.chalmers.se - an internal "Blocket", with the big difference that everything is free. This is part of Chalmers' business support sustainability work that contributes to the UN's sustainable develoment goal 12, Responsible Consumption and Production.
  • Collaboration with the organization Closing the loop, which works with circular services. The organization is the first to be approved to handle the collection of electronic waste within the framework of the requirement TCO certified egde. The money that "Återtag" deliver to Chalmers, contributes to Closing the loop being able to buy back old mobile phones from Africa for recycling.
– All electronics in Europe ends up in a dump in Africa. That's the big thing. They can't recycle the material, which is a health issue. When we first met Closing the loop, we realized that they could also handle old electronic waste locally on site that had already been shipped to Africa.

Martina Petranikova"From the technological point of view, we have come a long way", says Martina Petranikova, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. 

Her work deals with hydrometallurgical process to recover valuable metals from primary sources like ores. And from secondary sources – car batteries, steel making dust, mining waste, waste of electric and electronic equipment, etc.

"We are keeping old electronic waste at home. The concentration of precious metals, like gold, used in one computer around the year 2000 can be used to produce five or six computers today, so we should really bring in the old computers", says Martina Petranikova.
The advantage with recycling materials from waste, is that we already have it.  We do not have to mine ore to get hold of it, which saves the environment but also transportation, and less CO2 emissions.

"I usually tell my students that metals are amazing materials. It doesn’t matter how many times it will be recycled if you do it properly and purify the metals. The metals will keep its properties. One example is recycled aluminum and copper. If you use recycled aluminum, you only need ten percent of the energy for the production, compared with production from the ore". 

Martina Petranikova mentions the challenges for the society. One is to develop a system that is safe for the customers to bring in the computers, we have lots of personal data stored in our old electronic equipment. Another positive challenge is that we do not need large amounts of waste to get this profitable. 
"So, we need a circular system to enhance better economy and sustainable production. There is already a network and infrastructure for how the electronic waste is treated. But the effective collection of the waste is still the most crucial step in whole value chain", she concludes.


By: Ann-Christine Nordin

Page manager Published: Mon 14 Jun 2021.