E-Waste and the underbelly of the tech industry

Last year, the EU updated its directives for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), in an effort to step up recycling and the safe disposal of outdated and malfunctioning equipment. In the US, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act was introduced as a bill in June last year. India is also taking governmental steps to control how E-Waste is handled.

That sounds like good news; after all, old electronics goods are full of good things that can often be re-used. And, of course, they’re also full of toxic things that we don’t want leached into our rivers and oceans, or just polluting the land that we live on. But things aren’t as great as they seem. The problem is that E-Waste has become an incredibly profitable business. It’s also a business that has an incredibly dark side.

So, here’s the picture. When all the computers, tvs, phones, printers, scanners, routers and everything else you can think of reach the end of their usable lives, you need to find a way to get rid of them. If you’re good about it, you choose to recycle your goods. These recycling companies quite frequently find that there are businesses in less technologically advanced places in the world that can actually refurbish many of these goods and sell them on to be re-used. In fact, this process is so profitable that many of these businesses are willing to import whole shipping containers of this stuff to sort through in the hope of finding a few working goods that can be sold. The rest of the equipment usually gets dumped somewhere in the country.

Other businesses are actually willing to try to extract any other items of value from the remaining junk. The problem with this, is that they usually don’t have the infrastructure to handle the recycling, so it’s all done manually. Often this involves employing children to manually take apart electronic goods and pick them to pieces for valuable components. What’s left over usually gets smelted in open fires in an attempt to extract valuable metals. I’m not going to even try to list the number of problems that arise from this, other than to mention that the process involves loads of extremely toxic chemicals.

E-Waste Dumping
A couple of years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS Frontline, which presented many of the horrors of E-Waste dumping. When I heard that the WEEE directive had been updated, I decided to check what the situation was with regard to E-Waste dumping across the world. Sadly, one of the first pieces of news that I discovered was that the digital dumping ground in Liberia is just as active as it was three years ago. The horrifying truth all started to come out last year when the Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK published a report on the illegal dumping of e-waste from the EU. According to the paper, some 75% of this waste remains unaccounted for on a yearly basis. That actually equates to around eight million tons of junk that simply disappears. If you haven’t watched the documentary I linked to yet, you won’t know that the large majority of this stuff is finding its way to the more impoverished areas in Africa and China.

There is so much to write about E-Waste dumping, but it’s been covered so well in the articles and video that I have already referenced. The thing to keep in mind is that our technology seems to be reaching ‘end-of-life’ at an ever increasing pace. As the latest iPhone or tablet hits the stores, your old phone and computer suddenly need to get junked. There is a very good chance that your old iPod or laptop computer is sitting at the top of a junk heap somewhere in Ghana.

E-Waste Profiteering
A recent report suggests that E-Waste disposal in the UK costs companies over £50m a year. Aside from the less legitimate approaches to recycling mentioned earlier, the recycling process in the last three years has become so cheap that it is almost cost-neutral. In fact, since the components and materials that are extracted during the recycling process are so valuable, many of the companies that are involved in the recycling process are now making a tidy profit not only from the recycling process itself, but also from the fact that in many countries there is no control over how producers of E-Waste are charged for the recycling process, turning the whole process into an incredibly lucrative and frequently corrupt trade.

Recycling vs ReUse
Recycling sounds great. But it’s not always the best solution. Often equipment that is marked as E-Waste is still usable. It’s just not needed any more because it has been replaced with something else. Most legislation puts emphasis on the recovery and recycling processes over and above the less energy intensive reuse path for electronic goods. Don’t get me wrong here, recycling actually does come with an energy cost benefit. It is abundantly clear that it requires much less energy to extract minerals and materials directly from electronic goods than it requires to mine and manufacture those materials from scratch. The point here is that often we don’t need to go to the radical lengths of full-scale recycling. As an amateur robotics and electronics enthusiast, I have to say that it is amazing how much you can salvage from an old VHS recorder or from a variety of other electronic equipment. Certainly, cannibalizing electronic goods for working parts that can be re-used in other equipment is an area that needs more exploration. Unfortunately, this sort of work is often manual and can’t be easily automated which drives up the cost of making good our electronic junk, however in a market where job scarcity seems to be growing at an unprecedented rate this seems like a major opportunity.

But hunting for parts isn’t always that necessary. Providing the appropriate facilities to allow us to separate our electronic recyclables into those that are working and functional and those that are not, would certainly help to reduce the amount of energy used on recycling perfectly usable electronic goods. Charity, Computer Aid International, states that the actual working life of a computer averages around ten years, while most UK computer users will replace their computers after around two or three years of use, in order to stay current. If only a quarter of the UK population does this, it equates to roughly 7 million working computers being junked every year.

E-Waste Opportunities
It is clear that E-Waste is very profitable and if recycling is handled properly it has a large number of benefits. For one thing, it brings with it many job opportunities. Latest estimates show that recycling maintains around 1.1 million jobs in the U.S. every year and generates $236 billion in gross annual sales and $37 billion in annual payrolls.

It also opens up the possibility of redistributing many useful technical components to less technically advanced countries at low cost. Even where the actual components cannot be used, recycling offers the opportunity to extract minerals like gold, silver, bauxite, copper, lead and tin for a fraction of the cost of actually mining them. And it’s more energy efficient, helping us to conserve our natural resources.

Africa is not blind to the problems that E-Waste have created in places like Ghana and Nigeria. At African Utility Week in May this year, you can attend an presentation by eWASA where responsible handling of E-Waste in Africa will be discussed in some detail. Let’s hope that all this new legislation, greater public awareness, and forward thinking organizations working toward solving the problems associated with the incredible waste our industry generates results in a cleaner and better world.



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