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New pilot study demonstrates huge potential in MN for e-waste recycling

A new pilot study that examines the potential for electronic waste (e-waste) recycling in Minnesota shows that a more concentrated, statewide effort to recycle the valuable metals contained in electronic devices could produce nearly two thousand jobs and provide $2.8 billion in revenue per year. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and Minnesota could be a pioneer in turning this waste into economic benefits.

“In public conversations about mining, we only usually talk about mining for virgin metals, but there are a lot of opportunities to reuse the metal that's already been dug out of the ground, and it seems wholly irresponsible to not look there first before we alter even more landscapes and communities,” said Professor Roopali Phadke, who is one of the study’s principal investigators and a scholar of environmental politics and policy at Macalester College.

The study, conducted in partnership between Phadke, the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, and Repowered, one of the state’s largest e-waste recyclers, was undertaken with two goals in mind:

• To find out how much e-waste there is in Minnesota;

• To try to answer the question: Is it even plausible that we can harvest from the waste stream enough precious metals to make a dent in what we need in order to build all of the things we want to build?

Using peer-reviewed research, market prices of metals, and local data on e-waste, the researchers found that there is considerable potential in e-waste recycling. If 100 percent of the 266 million pounds of e-waste generated in Minnesota each year were captured for recycling or refurbishment, the effort would generate:

• 1,738 direct jobs;

• 78 million pounds of valuable metals;

• Enough copper for 155,000 electric vehicles;

• Enough silver to produce 441,000 solar panels;

• $2.8 billion in annual revenue.

The Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability has long advocated for sustainable jobs on the Range. Board President Marlise Riffel said, “Because e-waste has no foreseeable endpoint, this is a golden opportunity to harvest all we can from this resource. Capturing value from 100% of the e-waste we generate is a win-win for jobs, revenue, and the environment.”

Next Steps

The researchers argue this pilot study, which is based in part on data from Repowered’s Saint Paul facility, demonstrates the need for a more comprehensive review of every e-waste facility in Minnesota.

"Right now Minnesota only collects 23.7% of its e-waste for recycling. Most of those materials don’t stay in the state or even the country. This study shows us how much opportunity we are currently missing out on," said Maria Jensen, an environmental health and safety expert at Repowered.

There was no mention of e-waste in the bill Gov. Tim Walz signed in February that aims to cut carbon emissions statewide while creating more clean-energy jobs. A real policy commitment, like legislation providing free and accessible e-waste collection, would contribute to the circular economy of metals and would put Minnesota at the head of the pack among states and alongside the commitment from European countries.

“There is an ethical problem here. We can't just keep making stuff without paying attention to the ingredients that go into the stuff,” said Phadke.“I am sympathetic to the Republican argument that, right now, our supply of metals comes from places that are known for human rights abuses and all kinds of dirty politics. And so we should consider obtaining these metals from our own backyard, but we can’t do it by just green-lighting every mining project and trespassing over Native treaties to get those metals. E-waste might be a real solution.”


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