The subject of e-waste is a contentious one. For most people their immediate reaction centres around thoughts of illegal dumping in developing countries resulting in environmental havoc. However, as terrible as this is, it is just one factor. Depending upon who you ask you’ll get different responses. For entrepreneurs, social business owners and recyclers, e-waste represents a key economic driver that provides employment for hundreds of thousands of people including long-term unemployed and people with special needs. For scientists and economists, e-waste can represent an untapped alternative source of raw materials including rare earth metals. For CIO’s and security officers e-waste represents a dangerous route for data breaches, corporate espionage and sale of personal data. For educators in developing countries it can provide an essential source of low-cost or free technology for young people. As previously stated, for environmentalists, local government leaders and residents it can be an environmental catastrophe that results in soil, air, water being polluted by hazardous chemicals and metals and the associated dangers to human and animal health. It’s all of these things and more…..with more being the operative word. Our craving for the latest tech gadgets is not slowing…in fact quite the opposite. Check out a previous blog post for insight into consumption trends. Although a number of manufacturers claim to be investing in design for recycling we are along way from a circular economy. So for the time being e-waste is here to stay. Let’s look at some of it’s different faces.
In a post published on Bloomberg, Adam Minter cited a recent survey by the US International Trade Commission stating that the US generated around 4.5 million tonnes of e-waste in 2011. Interestingly, according the survey only 0.13 % of this was actually exported for purposes which were NOT recycling or reuse with an additional 3% sent abroad for “unknown” purposes. Is this information from a reliable source? Well the data came from a survey of 5,200 businesses involved in the e-waste industry but it should be noted that the companies that received the survey were required by law to complete it, and to do so accurately. Minter points out that this data is completely contrary to the figure of 80% exporting as claimed by the Basel Action Network. The real figure is probably somewhere in between. However, what is clear is that e-waste recycling sector is providing jobs with 45,000 people employed in the sector as of 2011 compared with 6,000 in 2002.
An important question is what is happening to e-waste once it’s exported? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a globally accepted method of tracking e-waste shipments. Some of it ends up in landfill sites in places such as Guiyu, in southern China’s Guangdong province. According to one report the city employs over 150,000 focused on dismantling and recycling e-waste. Working conditions are poor. Giuyu is reckoned to have the highest rate of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and most of the city’s rivers and waterways are completely polluted as a result of discarded waste from the recovery processes and ash from burning coal. The scale and extent of the problems the city faces are captured in this slideshow by Chien-min Chung in Time magazine.
The flipside of this tragedy can be found in developing countries where redundant IT from the west has a new lease of life helping educate kids who would otherwise have no access to computers. Computer Aid International is a not-for-profit charity that is staffed by volunteers with the vision of bridging the digital divide and providing access to technology for all. Since its inception the charity has provided over 200,000 computers to schools mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Other projects include Zubabox which is a self-contained, solar-powered internet café that can be deployed in rural areas. The ZubaBox is in effect a mobile classroom that has been designed to help rural communities access IT and the internet. Computer Aid believes this will potentially have a huge impact on poverty reduction.
The unstoppable demand for electronics is resulting in shortages of critical raw materials including some rare earth metals. A 2010 report from the UN Environment Programme listed 14 metals that are used in the manufacture of high tech product that are in critical supply including cobalt, gallium, indium and magnesium. In a recent statement the UN Commission for Sustainable Development outlined that only 1% of “specialty metals” used in electronics manufacturing are currently recycled compared with 50% of common metals such as steel. Ironically, the green energy sector consumes proportionately more rare earth than most other sectors. For example a hybrid or electric car contains 10 -20 kg of rare earths as opposed to a normal petrol or diesel car. However, researchers at the University of Southern Australia are developing a process for better recovery of metals from e-waste. The process that they are calling “Urban Mining” involves grinding e-waste into a powder which can then be put into flotation plant similar to those used in the mining industry to separate materials. Air is pumped in to agitate the concentrate separating the precious metals into layers. The process is known as froth flotation.
However, I also believe that it is not beyond the wit of man to have our cake and eat it by finding sustainable, environmentally-friendly and cost-effective ways to manufacture goods in a way that not only drastically reduces the continued need for mining of new raw materials but also provides for extended usage and even 100% recycling and recovery of raw materials after the point of disposal. I’d be interested to hear about any examples of advances in design for recycling and any manufacturers who are really pushing the envelope.
Bye for now!
E-waste face image courtesy of CBS http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3698416n