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.