Recycling of electronic waste: sustainable but also safe?

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Electronic waste (e-waste) is any electrical or electronic equipment that has been discarded. The generation of e-waste has increased dramatically in recent years and therefore its recycling plays a crucial role in the circular economy intending to repair and reuse as many materials and substances as possible to minimize waste and pollution. E-waste constitutes an important component to increase the sustainability of consumer goods and is economically beneficial as well.

Nevertheless, e-waste can be dangerous for workers during recycling due to harmful metals. A cross sectional study has taken a closer look at the occupational exposure of workers to toxic metals in five sheltered workshops for physically and mentally handicapped workers, since in Germany the initial step of e-waste recycling often takes place in these facilities. Electrical equipment disassembly (not including the disassembly of displays) was quoted as the most common work activity.

A combined air- and bio-monitoring approach was implemented by a scientific consortium including the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance (IFA). The aim was to determine the workers’ exposure to aluminium, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury, and nickel. Validated methods developed by the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance (IFA) were used for both sampling and sample analyses.

The metal exposure of recycling workers in this study turned out to be low compared to German and international occupational exposure limits (OELs), none of the OELs were exceeded at the studied workplaces. Apart from moderately elevated Antimony and Mercury levels in individual cases, no significant differences in terms of metal exposure could be found to exist between recycling and office workers

Thus, it can be stated that current work methods and protective measures provide sufficient protection and that recycling facilities are safe workplaces.

More information
Katrin Pitzke
Katrin.pitzke@dguv.de

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