Tag Archives: e-waste

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste, http://wiki.ban.org, Jan. 10, 2020

The Global Flows of Dirty Recyclables

For decades, America and much of the developed world threw their used plastic bottles, soda cans and junk mail in one bin. The trash industry then shipped much of that thousands of miles to China, the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material, to be sorted and turned into new products.  That changed last year when China banned imports of mixed paper and plastic and heavily restricted other scrap. Beijing said it wants to stimulate domestic garbage collection and end the flow of foreign trash it sees as an environmental and health hazard. Since then, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia—other popular markets for the West’s trash—have implemented their own restrictions…China’s 2018 restrictions on a variety of waste imports radically changed global flows of plastics, including polyethylene, a popular type used in shopping bags and shampoo bottles.

 
For years, the world’s bottles and boxes made their way to China on ships that offered deep discounts to avoid returning empty after dropping off cargo in the U.S. and other countries. Since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste, according to data published in 2019 in the journal Science Advances. “It was a great relationship, where we bought their goods and sent them back the empty boxes,” says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste management company in the U.S. In 2018, China instituted a ban on 24 categories of waste—including, for example, plastic clamshell containers, soda and shampoo bottles, and junk mail. It said foreign garbage was “provoking a public outcry.”

China accepted dirty and mixed recyclables because it had low-wage workers to sort out unwanted material, often by hand. That gave American contractors little incentive to weed out food scraps, plastic bags and nonrecyclable junk stateside. After China rejected imports, a flood of trash was rerouted to countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many of those places now say they are overwhelmed and have imposed their own restrictions on paper or plastic imports. The countries also want to focus on developing their own waste collection industries.

Malaysia in May 2019 began sending back 60 containers of imported trash to the U.S. and other countries, complaining it had become a dumping ground for rich countries. The containers were meant to contain plastic scrap but were contaminated with other items such as cables and electronic waste. A government spokeswoman said more containers will be returned as Malaysia ramps up inspections.

Japan, which historically sent most of its plastic exports to China, had been redirecting trash to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam after China’s ban. But when those countries began turning dirty recycling away, Japanese collectors started stockpiling, in hopes a new market would arise. Over the past year, Japan has amassed 500,000 tons of plastic waste, according to Hiroaki Kaneko, deputy director of recycling at the environment ministry. Japan, the second-biggest exporter of plastic waste behind the U.S., is trying to stimulate domestic processing by earmarking billions of yen to subsidize plastic recycling machinery for private companies.

The U.K. is burning more of its trash, including dirty or low-value recycling. Attitudes toward incineration vary greatly by country. In the U.S., where space is plentiful, it has long been cheaper to send materials to landfills, and incineration has remained unpopular. Across much of Europe, by contrast, trash burned for energy has been popular for years. ….“The China ban has highlighted that we can no longer export our problem,” said managing director Bill Swan. Paper Round’s buyers have much higher standards now, he said, such as checking moisture levels, which can decrease the quality of paper.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Recycling Rethink: What to Do With Trash Now That China Won’t Take It, WSJ, Dec. 21, 2019

How to Spend $18 billion on Foreign Garbage

China sucked in more than half the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper in 2016, and half of its used plastic. All in all, China spent over $18bn on imports of rubbish in 2016. America, meanwhile, is an eager supplier. In 2016 nearly a quarter of America’s biggest exporters by volume were recyclers of paper, plastic or metal. Topping the list was America Chung Nam, a California-based supplier of waste paper which last year exported a whopping 333,900 containers, almost all of them to China.

This may soon change. On July 18, 2017 China told the World Trade Organisation that by the end of the year, it will no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste as part of a government campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”. The Ministry of Environmental Protection says restricting such imports will protect the environment and improve public health. But the proposed import ban will disrupt billions of dollars in trade. Recyclers worry that other categories of waste may soon receive the same treatment.

It is often cheaper to recycle scrap copper, iron and steel, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make such materials from scratch, especially when commodity prices are high. So as commodity prices rose during the 2000s, the burgeoning trade in waste benefited both exporters, who made money from previously worthless trash, and importers, who gained access to a reliable stream of precious feedstock. Between 1995 and 2016 Chinese imports of waste grew tenfold, from 4.5m to 45m tonnes.

But imports of recyclable waste are often dirty, poorly sorted or contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 1996 factories in Xinjiang inadvertently imported more than 100 tonnes of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan. The following year an American businessman was convicted of smuggling over 200 tonnes of unsorted rubbish labelled as waste paper. Even when the intended material is imported, it is often recycled improperly. In 2002 the authorities faced widespread criticism after a documentary showed workers in Guangdong province crudely dismantling discarded electronic devices and dumping the toxic remains into a river. Officials may have been spurred into the latest restrictions by the release of Plastic China, an unflattering documentary about the plastic-recycling industry which was screened at Sundance, a grand American film festival, in January 2017,

The government had already been campaigning to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste under a crackdown called Operation Green Fence launched in 2013….Whereas Green Fence was aimed at improving the quality of imported waste, the government’s latest move bans several types of waste outright, threatening some $5bn in trade. But…. recyclers who rely on imports may now switch to grubbier domestic stock.

Excerpts from Waste Management: Anti-Dumping, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017, at 32

Electronic Waste: reincarnation

In the electronics recycling business, the benchmark is to try to collect and recycle 70 percent, by weight, of the devices produced seven years earlier…. Apple exceeds that, typically reaching 85 percent, including recycling some non-Apple products that customers bring in.

That means Apple will have to get hold of and destroy the equivalent of more than 9 million of 2009’s iPhone 3GS models this year around the world. With iPhone sales climbing to 155 million units in 2015, grinding up Apple products is a growth business.  Apple said it collected more than 40,000 tons of e-waste in 2014 from recycled devices, including enough steel to build 100 miles of railway track.

Brightstar Corp., based in Miami, Florida, TES-AMM in Singapore, Hong-Kong’s Li Tong and Foxconn Technology Group, the most famous manufacturer of iPhones, are part of a global network of recyclers that agreed to more than 50 rules, ranging from security, to insurance, to auditing, in the destruction of the phones.

The process starts at hundreds of Apple stores globally, or online, where the company offers gift certificates to lure iPhone owners to sell back their devices….Once Apple’s partners decide a phone must be scrapped, a deconstruction process begins that is remarkably similar to Apple’s production model, only in reverse.
Apple pays for the service and owns every gram, from the used phone at the start to the pile of dust at the end, said Linda Li, chief strategy officer for Li Tong. The journey, consisting of about 10 steps, is controlled, measured and scripted through vacuum-sealed rooms that are designed to capture 100 percent of the chemicals and gasses released during the process, she said…

While some brands salvage components such as chips that can be used to repair faulty phones, Apple has a full-destruction policy.“Shredding components takes more energy than repurposing,” Li said. Li Tong works with other customers to advise on how to design products that are easier to deconstruct, taking cameras from smartphones for reuse in toy drones, and adapting screens from Microsoft Surface tablets to use in New York taxis, she said.  Apple shreds its devices to avoid having fake Apple products appearing on the secondary market.
And once it’s ground into shreds, what becomes of your old iPhone? Hazardous waste is stored at a licensed facility and the recycling partners can take a commission on other extracted materials such as gold and copper. The rest is reincarnated as aluminum window frames and furniture, or glass tiles.

Where iPhones Go To Die ( and Be Reborn), Bloomberg,  Mar. 13, 2016

Electronic Waste: 100 million tonnes 2020

Exports of electronic waste or e-waste are banned in Europe, but remain legal in America. The United States is the only developed country that has refused to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty controlling the export of hazardous waste from wealthy countries to poorer ones. America has also refused, along with Canada and Japan, to accept the Basel Convention’s 1995 amendment that imposes an outright ban on such trade.

There have been repeated attempts in Congress to pass legislation that would make it illegal to send toxic waste to other countries. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2013 failed to gain a consensus. A similar act, introduced in March 2014, remains stuck in the Senate.

Not that the Europeans behave all that ethically. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found nearly half the e-waste destined for export was actually illegal. Shippers use various tricks to circumvent the Basel ban. For instance, waste labelled as goods for refurbishing or reuse can pass muster, even if it gets incinerated or dumped in landfills on arrival.

Chinese authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to put a stop to such false labeling back in 2000, by banning all imports of e-waste, whatever their intended use. Today, Guiyu, a city in Guangdong province, is the e-waste capital of the world. There, glass-to-glass recycling of computer monitors and television sets costs a tenth of what it does in America. Cathode-ray tubes, with their high concentrations of lead and chemically hazardous phosphors, are the most difficult of all e-waste to process. With an abundance of recycled glass from CRTs, China has become a leading exporter of bottles and jars.

The e-waste industry in Guiyu is said to employ 150,000 people, including large numbers of children, disassembling old computers, phones and other devices by hand to recover whatever metals and parts that can be resold. Circuit boards are soaked in acid to dissolve out the lead, cadmium and other metals. Plastic cases are ground into pellets, and copper wiring is stripped of its plastic coating. Anything not salvageable is burned.

The air pollution and contamination of the local water supply in Guiyu are said to be horrendous. A medical researcher from nearby Shantou University found concentrations of lead in the blood of local children to be on average 49% over the maximum safe level. The highest concentrations were in children living in homes with workshops for recycling circuit boards on the premises.

India is fast becoming another big dumping ground for Western e-waste. Greenpeace reckons there are 25,000 workers employed in recycling computers, phones and other hardware in Delhi alone, where up to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste are processed a year. The preferred method for recycling circuit boards is to toss them into an open fire—to melt the plastics and burn away everything but the gold and copper. Similar recycling dumps have been found in Mumbai, Bangalore and several other cities.

With the global mountain of e-waste growing bigger by 8% a year, the 20m-50m tonnes the EPA reckoned was produced globally in 2009 could easily reach 100m tonnes by 2020.

Excerpts from Where Gadgets Go to Die, Economist, Sept. 6, 2014, at 9