Waste management of printed wiring boards: a life cycle assessment of the metals recycling chain from liberation through refining. Academic Article uri icon


  • Due to economic and societal reasons, informal activities including open burning, backyard recycling, and landfill are still the prevailing methods used for electronic waste treatment in developing countries. Great efforts have been made, especially in China, to promote formal approaches for electronic waste management by enacting laws, developing green recycling technologies, initiating pilot programs, etc. The formal recycling process can, however, engender environmental impact and resource consumption, although information on the environmental loads and resource consumption is currently limited. To quantitatively assess the environmental impact of the processes in a formal printed wiring board (PWB) recycling chain, life cycle assessment (LCA) was applied to a formal recycling chain that includes the steps from waste liberation through materials refining. The metal leaching in the refining stage was identified as a critical process, posing most of the environmental impact in the recycling chain. Global warming potential was the most significant environmental impact category after normalization and weighting, followed by fossil abiotic depletion potential, and marine aquatic eco-toxicity potential. Scenario modeling results showed that variations in the power source and chemical reagents consumption had the greatest influence on the environmental performance. The environmental impact from transportation used for PWB collection was also evaluated. The results were further compared to conventional primary metals production processes, highlighting the environmental benefit of metal recycling from waste PWBs. Optimizing the collection mode, increasing the precious metals recovery efficiency in the beneficiation stage and decreasing the chemical reagents consumption in the refining stage by effective materials liberation and separation are proposed as potential improvement strategies to make the recycling chain more environmentally friendly. The LCA results provide environmental information for the improvement of future integrated technologies and electronic waste management.

published proceedings

  • Environ Sci Technol

author list (cited authors)

  • Xue, M., Kendall, A., Xu, Z., & Schoenung, J. M.

complete list of authors

  • Xue, Mianqiang||Kendall, Alissa||Xu, Zhenming||Schoenung, Julie M

publication date

  • January 2015