Tag Archives: e-waste

How to Spend $18 billion on Foreign Garbage

image from wikipedia

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

How to Reincarnate E-Waste

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

Toxic Streams of E-Waste: 100 million tonnes by 2020

keyboards

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

For responsible recycling options see

http://www.e-stewards.org/find-a-recycler/certified-recyclers/

 

The Nightmare of Electronic Waste

The lack of adequate management of electronic waste in Guatemala is posing a serious threat to the environment and health, as demand for electronic devices has soared to the point that there are more cell phones than people.  Computers, mobile phones, refrigerators, microwave ovens and a long list of other devices and appliances end up in garbage dumps and even rivers, and the public is unaware of the danger posed by toxic substances in the products, experts warn.   Chrome, mercury, lead, selenium and arsenic are some of the most toxic substances in e-waste, which can cause serious damages to health, Mayron España, director of E-Waste de Guatemala, an NGO that collects such products for recycling, told IPS….”And all of these metals end up in the water sooner or later,” because they seep into groundwater or because e-waste is dumped into surface water bodies like rivers, said España, whose organisation collects e-waste to be recycled abroad.

According to Guatemala’s telecoms regulator, the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones, the number of mobile phones in use in 2011 reached 20.7 million in this country of 14 million people – up from just 3.1 million in 2004.  And a similar increase has been seen in the case of computers, digital cameras and TV sets, and other products.  But these devices are highly polluting. A single nickel cadmium battery cell phone can pollute 50,000 litres of water, according to environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

A study on e-waste by the Guatemalan Centre for Cleaner Production, “Diagnóstico sobre la generación de desechos electrónicos en Guatemala”, concluded that by 2015, at least 13,000 tons of cell phones and 18,600 tons of computers and accessories will have been thrown out in this Central American country.  The report proposes the “three R’s”- reduce, reuse, recycle – to curb the negative impact of e-waste on the environment.  The study, carried out by two engineers, Sonia Solís and Andrés Chicol, calls for the formulation of e-waste management plans as part of a national strategy that should include activities aimed at raising public awareness about the problem.

Adriana Grimaldi, a chemistry professor at the private Mariano Gálvez University, stressed the urgent need to address the question of e-waste because of the serious risks posed to the environment and human health.  Grimaldi said PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), whose production is banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, are among the “most powerful and carcinogenic” substances used in electrical devices like transformers and capacitors….Julio Urías, an adviser to the Red Giresol – the Guatemalan network of environmental promoters for prevention and integrated management of solid waste – says there is much to be done in the area of waste management in Guatemala, although he also mentioned important efforts by social organisations and private companies.  He said that an essential step is to draft and enforce “viable legislation.” He also called for “education and information for the population about consumption habits.”

The government’s National Commission on Solid Waste Management estimates that just five percent of the 7,000 tons of solid waste produced daily in this country is recycled.

However, there are positive experiences with recycling, which show that it can generate opportunities for people who have none.  That is the case of Edulibre, a non-profit that donates old computers to public schools in poor areas.  “Companies donate their old computers to us,” Javier Hernández, a computer technician who works with Edulibre, told IPS. “We check them and install our own operating system that we have adapted for Guatemala, from free software.”  Since 2007, the organisation has also set up five computer labs in the capital and other parts of the country, which serve more than 1,000 children, while protecting the environment by reusing old equipment.

Excerpts, Danilo Valladares, More Cell-Phones than People, and No E-Waste Treatment in Guatemala, IPS, Apr. 2, 2012

Banning Hazardous Waste Trade

Illegal E-Waste Trade

Exporting E-Waste

Banning Hazardous Waste Trade: an invitation to illegal marketers

More than 170 countries have agreed to accelerate adoption of a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes (pdf), including old electronics, to developing countries.  The environmental group Basel Action Network called Friday’s deal, which was brokered by Switzerland and Indonesia, a major breakthrough.  “I’m ecstatic,” said its executive director, Jim Puckett. “I’ve been working on this since 1989 and it really does look like the shackles are lifted and we’ll see this thing happen in my lifetime.”

The deal seeks to ensure that developing countries no longer become dumping groups for toxic waste including industrial chemicals, discarded computers and mobile phones and obsolete ships laden with asbestos, he said.Delegates at the UN environmental conference in Cartagena agreed the ban should take effect as soon as 17 more countries ratify an amendment to the so-called 1989 Basel Convention.  “This agreement was stalled for the past 15 years,” Colombia’s environment minister, Frank Pearl, said in praising the vote. Katharina Kummer, the convention’s executive secretary, estimated it would take five years to reach the required 68 ratifying nations. Puckett said he thought it would be closer to two years….The United States, the world’s top exporter of electronic waste, is among nations that have not ratified the original convention.  “Unless the US joins the treaty they are just going to be a renegade,” Puckett said, adding that the US had no rules for exporting electronic waste, which it sends mostly to China but also to Africa and Latin America.  The global ban has been strongly backed by African countries, China and the European Union, which already prohibits toxic exports and Puckett said Colombia played a strong role in Friday’s breakthrough.  Opponents have been led by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and recently joined by India, said Puckett….The issue took centre stage in 2006 when hundreds of tonnes of waste were dumped around the Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan, killing at least 10 people and sickening tens of thousands.  The waste came from a tanker chartered by the Dutch commodities trading company Trafigura Beheer BV, which had contracted with a local company to dispose of the waste.  Puckett said shipping companies had opposed inclusion in the ban, wanting to keep sending old ships to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to scrap them.  “Just about four days ago another six people died on the beaches of Bangladesh,” he said.  He told AP there were no reliable estimates on how many tonnes of toxic waste were exported annually because developed nations did not accurately report them.

Global hazardous waste ban advances, Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 23, 2011

Transnational Movements in Hazardous and Nuclear Waste