Continuing the Conversation

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

Last week we announced some highlights from our symposium held in February. Electronics & Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment elicited a frenzy of information and thought provoking ideas. An extensive amount of topics were covered through a variety of perspectives.

In hopes of continuing the discussion I plan on posting a multi-part series addressing different topics raised at the symposium.

The first of this series will continue the topic from a recent post: export.

Eric Williams, one of the speakers at the symposium, has been researching electronic waste for many years. In fact, he recently testified in front of congress speaking in regards to the H.R. 1580, “e-waste R&D act.”

Williams’ recent work, studying the material flow of electronics, indicates that e-waste in developing countries will soon  (in about 6 or 7 years) exceed the amount that the developed countries create. Therefore, perhaps shortly, the problem will not be the presence of foreign electronics in developing countries but the developing country’s own piles of e-waste.  Perhaps then the need for trade bans like the Basel Convention is not of utmost importance right now. Perhaps it is more important to set up responsible recycling facilities in developing countries because, no matter from what source, e-waste is inevitable. And while the developed countries are still at major fault for the scale of e-waste in developing countries, it makes sense that the  developed countries contribute to setting up these facilities.

Some experts (like the organizations BAN and StEP) claim that the exportation of equipment should halt altogether because either not enough of the exported equipment is going to reuse or if it is going to reuse, there are claims that it is only used for two to three years. But according to Williams’ research, there is an extremely high reuse rate of the electronic equipment. In Peru, for instance, Williams reports that 87% of electronic equipment coming into Peru is intended for reuse rather than material recovery. The Sustainable Electronic Initiative is currently conducting research with the help of PCRR to find information regarding reuse like how long people tend to make use of used equipment. Perhaps this is a premature assumption but with that consideration in mind, thus far, we have found that people make use of used equipment significantly longer then two or three years (a figure suggested by StEP) and therefore we consider reuse a worthwhile effort. We have also found the carbon footprint of using used rather than new to be incredibly significant.

As Mr. Williams acknowledged in his speech at the symposium, the most harmful part of dismantling e-waste occurs when acid or burning is used to extract materials.  If done correctly, setting up responsible recycling facilities in developing countries can not only help maintain the jobs of the people living there by enabling them to still be in charge of disassembly and delivery to the facility, but the facility can take on the job of extracting materials in a responsible manner (not pouring the acid used for extraction onto the ground and having it potentially leach into water systems.)

One fear whenever a system like this is set up is that black markets of cheaper labor and materials will appear, after all, the e-waste industry we are concerning ourselves with right now is that of a black market. However, it is known that informal recycling, such as most of the recycling performed in Guiyu, China, recovers only 20% of the intended material.  The upside to this is that recycling facilities could potentially offer a better financial incentive than an unsafe black market recycling system.

5 Replies to “Continuing the Conversation”

  1. That is also my understanding, TK.

    During his presentation, Mr. Williams stressed that his concept for developing recycling centers that collect their equipment from informal recyclers includes the idea that the recycling centers paying those people that turn in equipment. The plan is to pay them more than what they get from the black market and therefore have this be the motivation to turn in the equipment rather than melting it down themselves. Perhaps this would require some support through subsidies but since there would be a dependable stream of resources and since recycling facilities are able to reclaim a higher percentage of the desired metal this business might be able to pay for itself.

  2. My understanding is that environmentally responsible recycling facilities setup in developing nations have trouble collecting materials because while they collect e-waste for free the black market will pay for the goods. Is this fact or fiction? -TK

  3. I couldn’t agree more Angelo. I think the United States needs to not only be leading the charge in how to take care of e-waste by enacting our own national legislation but we also need to help clean up the mess we have already made in underdeveloped countries across the world. I think we need to/can do both.

  4. This is such great timing. I just interviewed for a podcast where we touched on consumption and reuse patterns. We don’t see a lot of talk about emerging businesses around Materials Recovery Facilities (the clean and dirty ‘murf’s).

    But once these become viable and competitive perhaps the black market problem will be diminished. We should be leading the charge in HOW to take care of (make a viable business out of) eWaste, and incentivize communities to do a better job at it before we lecture developing countries on WHY they should take care of theirs.

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