Tag Archives: electronic 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

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: 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