eCycling.
October 23, 2008 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Electronic waste is a massive worldwide problem. Some deal with it themselves and profit from it, whilst others dump their waste on other countries. Some stats and an eWaste Guide.
posted by gman (27 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
If the price of a product included the cost of safe disposal, how much more would electronic products cost?
posted by pracowity at 9:03 AM on October 23, 2008


Parts of that wikipedia article are a mess, though the vandalism on it is sort of strange. In my experience, wikisaboteurs are more likely to insert vulgarities than words like "mom" or "waffles." It's like somebody tried to turn it into MadLibs.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:22 AM on October 23, 2008


Although I have no economic reason to, I'm one of those dweebs who picks up discarded electronics from the curb. I've been into electronics since my teens, and I found out long ago that discarded electronics are a treasure-trove of reuseable parts, and often, complete assemblies, like complete power supplies. Also people often throw out things that could have been easily repaired.

So I'm totally in agreement that effective recycling is possible.

> If the price of a product included the cost of safe disposal, how much more would electronic products cost?

Well, in the linked "profit" article, the recycler charged $700 per metric tonne (1,000 kg), that would work out to $0.70/kg or about $0.32 per pound.

Allowing for collection and hauling costs, lets estimate it would cost ... $0.75 per pound to collect and dispose of old electronics? So for a 20 pound computer, the disposal surcharge would be $15. That's not alot, is it?

To me the ideal recycling chain for old electronics is:

1) Cherry-pick the working or repairable equipment (especially computers) and give/donate/sell it to schools, vocational programs, thrift stores
2) for the rest, strip out reuseable subassemblies (power supplies, drives, etc) and boards with in-demand recoverable components and sell to hobby market
3) Whatever's left (electronic "waste" with no further value) goes to electronic recycling plant for separation and processing

With a maximally-efficient recycling program, the added cost might be reduced considerably. We will need government regulation, or a very strong voluntary program to direct the discarded electronics away from landfill and into recycling.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:38 AM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


If the price of a product included the cost of safe disposal, how much more would electronic products cost?

In the EU, it is included. I'm not sure how much it costs though.
posted by atrazine at 9:52 AM on October 23, 2008


Electronic waste has always seemed like a silly term to me. It sounds like what we should be calling all those radio and TV signals we've been leaking into space all these years.
posted by niles at 10:13 AM on October 23, 2008


So long as a few cents worth of gas can at least quintuple the price per pound of insulated wire; a lot of this is not going to change.
posted by buzzman at 10:24 AM on October 23, 2008


National Geographic did a photo essay/article about this a little while ago.. and would you believe it? I found a hyper-link to their internet web page with photo galleries and things like that. You can click on these highlighted words and you will be taken there. At no charge I might add.
posted by ChickenringNYC at 10:36 AM on October 23, 2008


We waste so much everyday. Plastic bags. Plastic forks and knives. Plastic cups. Plastic straws. Bottled water. Soda bottles. We need a newer cleaner biodegradable plastic and we need it now.

Why can't we just once a year junk toss all of our junk into a friggin volcano?
posted by doctorschlock at 10:37 AM on October 23, 2008


"Why can't we just once a year junk toss all of our junk into a friggin volcano?"

And piss off the volcano Gods?!?!? They like virgins last time I checked. You might need to go look in the Luke Skywalker post for some of those if you are inclined to chuck sacrifices into volcanoes.,.... Sorry it has been a very long day so far. Nice post.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 10:45 AM on October 23, 2008


I saw a show on electronic recycling at some point. Common practice awhile ago was to melt everything down for the trace amounts of precious metals in the electronic components. Then someone figured out that the ICs are worth more whole than as scrap metal, so the process changed to a desoldering operation - pull all the components off the boards and reuse them. Not sure what happened to the boards themselves or any of the other scrap; most likely got landfilled.

A question, though - is there a way to estimate the life of electronic components? With mechanical systems there are methods to determine life; you can expect failure after n cycles, loadings, hours, whatever. I imagine if there is no analog for electronic components, installing used ICs and components might be a bit riskier than installing, say, a used engine.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:50 AM on October 23, 2008


In the EU, it is included

Not in all EU countries. Over here in the Netherlands, you pay a seperate "verwijderingsbijdrage" - I guess that translates as removal charge. Shops that sell stuff like fridges and such are by law required to take back your old fridge if you tell them to (usually this means that they take back your old fridge when they deliver the new one), and this "verwijderingsbijdrage" covers the costs of that. If you're not buying something new, the city government has a service that will help you get rid of the old equipment under this program. They are then by law required to make sure it goes to the proper recycling channels and such.

You'll find all the charges for consumer equipment here, with the fridge setting you back 17 euro.
posted by DreamerFi at 11:04 AM on October 23, 2008


If the price of a product included the cost of safe disposal, how much more would electronic products cost?

Here in Alberta, there's a recycling fee added to the cost of new TVs and computers: $15-45 for TVs, $5-12 for computers.

GEEP (which is the "themselves" link in the post) just opened an on-site e-waste recycling facility in Edmonton that's quite a surreal site to behold. (Here's my Globe & Mail story on the place, which employs a disassembly process a bit more sophisticated than the one backseatpilot mentions, though there are people whacking away at cathode-tube displays with hammers at one station.)
posted by gompa at 11:05 AM on October 23, 2008


Edward Burtynsky's photo series manufacturing and recycling pretty much sum up what unfettered capitalism, manufactured consumer demand, cheap production technologies, free flow of capital, and the lack of a true cost that measures cradle-to-grave-impact has done to this planet.

Our descendents will curse our names as profligate, wasteful, short-sighted, rapacious fools.
posted by lalochezia at 11:05 AM on October 23, 2008


From an article on Ontario's waste strategy linked to in the Profit from it link:
"We need an incentive to make it easy and convenient for e-waste collection and disposal," says Glenda Gies, executive director of WDO. "When you buy a new TV, the store will deliver it and take your old one back to the store. They'll be paid to collect the old electronics, and a truck will come by and pick it all up for recycling."
That really scares me. This allows companies to do an end run around the used marketplace, which helps to prop up their sales, and increases the amount produced. A massive mistake!

Artful Codger: 2) for the rest, strip out reuseable subassemblies (power supplies, drives, etc) and boards with in-demand recoverable components and sell to hobby market

I'm fairly amazed that there isn't more market for used parts from old stereos and computers. There is often a market for working sub assemblies, but never at the component level. Admittedly recovering components is a slow process, but things like relays and big capacitors are expensive parts that are often perfectly good. Not to mention transformers.. And, my personal favorite, motorized pots from late 80s early 90s stereo equipment.
posted by Chuckles at 11:05 AM on October 23, 2008


Nowadays, with most electronics being built with surface-mount components, they're just about impossible to repair or rework at the PC-board level, let alone salvage and reuse ICs. (... and I've tried). How old is that TV show?

Electrolytic or tantalum capacitors are most likely to deteriorate over time. Most active components (ICs, transistors, thyristors, diodes, etc) are mostly silica, encased in plastic. They don't often die of natural causes; they fail due to excesses of current, voltage, mechanical force or heat, or from a flaw in manufacturing that makes them less tolerant of those excesses.

Other than us krazy hobbiests, there isn't a commercial market for salvaged ICs, nor would you want one. There's enough of a problem right now with counterfeit parts.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:12 AM on October 23, 2008


From the profit from it link:
It takes about 10 per cent of the diesel produced to drive the turbines that distill the plastic.

This is so awesome. The article goes on to point out that the hidden costs of manually processing the plastics eats up some of the efficiency of the reclamation process, but this is still a huge step in the right direction. An e-waste recycler I used to volunteer for was looking into a similar process for CRTs in order to reclaim the phosphors. As far as I know it never happened, but it's good that people are taking these steps.

despite the abundance of electronic waste in the form of fax machines, copiers, computers, monitors, and old-style televisions which are being replaced by flat screens, Hambsch says his plant could handle more but is waiting on a unified e-waste collection program in Ontario which will see municipalities and others separate electronic waste from the landfill stream.

From my experience, there's three serious problems here, and they both sit at the heart of e-waste recycling: lack of awareness, apathy and laziness. Before I go on, this isn't finger waving. A lot of people simply aren't aware that e-waste is a problem; if they're aware then they don't care; if they care, they can't be bothered. I'm frequently guilty of laziness myself, despite being close to the issue. It's a hassle to schlep old computers and TVs off to the recycling point now that I'm not a volunteer. I think, though, that education and more drop-off points would make a significant difference in improving the stream of recyclable goods being reprocessed.

What I'd really like to see is a recycling tax applied to all electronic good, redeemable at a certified recycler, similar to what's already in place for glass and plastic recyclables. Now, I know what the argument against this is; who in their right mind wants to pay a surcharge on top of the price of a consumer good? Well guess what, if you live in California you already pay $10-$20 for every single CRT that is recycled. The state already picks up that tab with your tax dollar. Wouldn't you like to be able to get that back? Right now you can, as a tax credit, when you bring your old electronics in, but think of how attitudes would change if people got cash-in-hand.

Couple this with education and a greater distribution of drop-off points and we'd see a lot less e-waste end up in the landfill.

1) Cherry-pick the working or repairable equipment (especially computers) and give/donate/sell it to schools, vocational programs, thrift stores
2) for the rest, strip out reuseable subassemblies (power supplies, drives, etc) and boards with in-demand recoverable components and sell to hobby market
3) Whatever's left (electronic "waste" with no further value) goes to electronic recycling plant for separation and processing


This is what we did at the recycler I volunteered for. We refurbished computers and sent them to schools in Oakland, Afghanistan, Chile, and Brazil. It's an ideal recycling chain, and completely achievable.

posted by lekvar at 12:11 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Other than us krazy hobbiests, there isn't a commercial market for salvaged ICs,

Well, I wasn't thinking about remanufacture. Hobbyists don't seem to have much interest in salvaged parts either.. I think it is because being a hobby inherently places it in the luxury category. There will always be people buying necessities on used markets, luxuries are a harder sell.
posted by Chuckles at 12:42 PM on October 23, 2008


Thanks so much for this post!

I've been following this pretty closely and I'm convinced that e-cycling is going to be one of the big booming industries in the next few years. Companies like Workforce Inc. in Indianapolis are doing really good work, and employing ex-offenders and other tough-to-employ populations to boot.
posted by lunit at 12:42 PM on October 23, 2008


Yay, an e-waste post!

I'm involved with a non-profit in Vancouver called Free Geek. We're one of about 8; the first one is in Portland. It's a consensus-based collective, really cool organization. The main idea: people donate their computers; volunteers pick them apart; working computers are reassembled while scrap is sent to recyclers. The working computers are sold in a thrift store, or given to volunteers in exchange for their labor, or donated to non-profits.

Spending time with this group has taught me a lot of interesting things. First of all the vast majority of old electronics has no reuse value. CRT monitors are junk unless they were made after about 2000. Old inkjets are junk. Pentium III's or less are junk. Old networking gear, old mice and keyboards, old joysticks, speakers, modems, and on and on; nobody wants this stuff. With rare exceptions for unique gear, museum pieces, or stuff of interest to hobbiests, even if it works, you can't give it away.

In fact, that's the funny bit; these things have negative value. You usually have to pay someone to take it for you. Some of the parts can be sold to recyclers (circuit boards, for example, due to the precious metals which can be recovered), but you need staff to disassemble the incoming waste stream and that's a time consuming process. If you don't rely on volunteers, you make your money by charging the public to drop off their gear. Typical price for CRT monitors (the heaviest, most worthless item) was $5 to $10.

In British Columbia there is now a recycling levy charged to all electronics purchases (it's new, about a year old). The money is used to fund dropoff points throughout the city (for example, at the Salvation Army) and pay the recyclers to accept the waste. Old gear is collected by Encorp, who does the bottle recycling as well, and diverted to a few different recyclers in the province. Tek Cominco operates a smelter in Trail, BC; I'm fairly certain a lot of the stuff ends up there. It basically goes through a big shredder and then gets melted down and separated. Kind of sad that working gear ends up in this place, but really it's the best option given there is no market for it. There are plans to try and expand the program to make it easier for this stuff to get reused, for example by funding certified reuse organizations with the recycling levy. This hasn't gotten off the ground yet.

The stuff that does have value is newer gear, especially laptops and LCD monitors. Fortunately for re-users, these things are cheaply made and frequently break in repairable ways. For the general public it is cheaper and easier to toss non-working parts and buy new ones. These are major source of revenue. I also have a theory that spyware is a major driver of new computer sales, since people drop off relatively new computers (less than 5 years) that are too slow, but if they were to simply wipe the disk and do a fresh install, it would certainly be fast enough for most tasks.

It's kind of paradoxical; the secondary market shouldn't exist, and it only for two reasons. First, people do not have the time or knowledge to refurbish their own computers. Second, the cost of a new computer is so low as to make paying for an old repair not make sense. So they buy a new one and try to get rid of the old one. If computers were much more scarce or expensive, you would see more of an effort to make them last. (I once saw a link, maybe on BoingBoing, about freelance electronics repairmen overseas, maybe in Nigeria or India, who do just this sort of thing).
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:29 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nice post, Paul. In Toronto there's reBOOT, which takes in computers, refurbishes and distributes them. They used to sell some spare or specialized parts on ebay, but no longer.

Paul, older gear, even P IIIs are useful to developing nations, and they often get a new lease on life if you install Linux on'em.

Myself, I'm thinking about some sort of art installation using the shiny bits of VHS transports, under PC or microcontroller control.
posted by Artful Codger at 1:49 PM on October 23, 2008


older gear, even P IIIs are useful to developing nations, and they often get a new lease on life if you install Linux on'em.

True -- and this is something Free Geek does -- but they're worth very little. Few people want them, even if you only charge $20.

There's some subtleties involved in donating the gear overseas that often get overlooked, too. For example, the film The Digital Dump by the Basel Action Network looked at the market of re-used and donated computers in Lagos. " In Lagos, while there is a legitimate robust market and ability to repair and refurbish old electronic equipment including computers, monitors, TVs and cell phones, the local experts complain that of the estimated 500 40-foot containers shipped to Lagos each month, as much as 75% of the imports are “junk” and are not economically repairable or marketable. Consequently, this e-waste, which is legally a hazardous waste is being discarded and routinely burned in what the environmentalists call yet “another “cyber-age nightmare now landing on the shores of developing countries."

Moreover, what happens when these near-end-of-life PIII's finally kick the bucket? There are no low-pollution smelters in the developing world, and there are no regulations prohibiting dumping of electronics as there are in North America and Europe. It means the worst of the environmental impacts of e-waste are shipped overseas along with the unwanted junk.

Not to say that developing countries don't need computers; they do. But there are two things to keep in mind. 1. Re-use programs are sometimes used as a loophole to dump nonfunctioning e-waste. 2. Donation programs need to include end-of-life provisions as well or else we're spreading the problem around.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:05 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


*high-fives PercussivePaul*
Recycler pride!

Yeah, shipping e-waste overseas has been a huge problem. Leaving aside the refurbished computers, a lot of the old electronics were/are commonly sent to South-East Asia for metal extraction. The recycler I volunteered with had a hell of a time finding end-of-stream processors who could be relied upon to not just dump boards in the river after the gold had been extracted. Getting reliable results when you're not actually on-site is a problem.

Personally, I'd like to see either a certification-and-monitoring process or more domestic processing. My guess is that the latter would be met with endless NIMBY headaches, but it would solve other problems, like streams and land polluted with heavy metals.

Oh, and reuse of older Pentium chips? There's always a market.*

This is probably no longer true, given that the shuttles themselves will soon be scrapped, but there was a big push at our facility to round up the older Pentiums for sale to NASA while I was there.
posted by lekvar at 3:02 PM on October 23, 2008


the secondary market shouldn't exist,

Um.. What do you mean?!?! Secondary markets exist for all tools.

The stuff that does have value is newer gear, especially laptops and LCD monitors. Fortunately for re-users, these things are cheaply made and frequently break in repairable ways.

The argument about building technological items to last is a really interesting one. Try pulling apart a piece of gear intended for commercial/industrial use. The stuff is astonishingly well built. Very heavy gauge steel frames, very robust connectors. This was true of servers from the 80s, but I just pulled apart a DEC Alpha server that was just as extreme. I guess if you are charging/paying $100,000, you want the thing to look like it is worth it.. But in fact that tendency is tremendously wasteful!

On the other hand, you have bad caps. They probably didn't begin as a built in obsolescence strategy, but considering that gear is still being built today with self destructing electrolytic caps, I think it is certainly being used as built in obsolescence now.

As for laptops.. I find it interesting. It is an inherent property that they must be more fragile. First, they are built for portability, but they are also highly integrated systems. The more integrated, the more likely an otherwise minor failure will bring down the whole thing. I keep telling family and friends, "You know, a desktop computer doesn't have to be huge, you can get small cases and LCD monitors, and they will be almost as small as a laptop. The desktop will be better because you can swap a drive, or the keyboard, or the monitor, whenever you feel like it." That idea alone is too complex for them though, or marketing messages and excess money have numbed their better judgment -- whatever, I can't convince them -- they think laptops are sexy...

At the same time, laptops have made great progress in terms of reliability. I was amazed at how fast, easy, and cheap it was to swap the keyboard on my recently acquired (against my better judgment) laptop. Of course I took the thing apart first, but then I discovered that three screws accessed under the battery would allow a keyboard swap! They were even helpfully marked with little keyboard icons!

And finally.. The fastest PIIIs are certainly still useful today. Not so for the earliest PIVs though. PIIIs are more than 50% faster than equivalently clocked PIVs to begin with, of course. In addition, a lot of early PIVs have RAMBUS memory architectures, and were sold with inadequate amounts of RAM. Since RAMBUS memory is hard to find and/or expensive, those machines are truly useless.
posted by Chuckles at 3:25 PM on October 23, 2008


Moreover, what happens when these near-end-of-life PIII's finally kick the bucket? There are no low-pollution smelters in the developing world, and there are no regulations prohibiting dumping of electronics as there are in North America and Europe. It means the worst of the environmental impacts of e-waste are shipped overseas along with the unwanted junk.

It almost sounds like you'd choose to deny them access to the tools.. Overall, it is obviously a big problem. Equally obvious though, destroying useful and wanted equipment is far worse!
posted by Chuckles at 3:29 PM on October 23, 2008


I just dropped off a dead TV (just an old 27 inch tube TV) which we had bought brand new seven or eight years ago. I paid fifteen bucks for them to recycle it. (Then I bought a "lightly used spare TV" for sixty bucks from Craigslist. I don't have $500 to throw around for a nice LCD TV.)

Frankly, I was very surprised by the stats that the vast majority of people do not just throw their broken electronics in the dumpster. (Free disposal in most big cities, I'm guessing.)

It's always nice when my cynicism is proven unwarranted.
posted by kozad at 3:57 PM on October 23, 2008


To clarify my point about the secondary market, the only reason it's possible to make a living reselling computers is because people are throwing them away earlier than they should. It does appear that the computer industry has stabilized since the late 90s, so that computers aren't obsolete nearly as quickly as they once were, but at the same time computer lifetimes have steadily fallen (because of falling prices and steadily improving technology). My feeling is that there's a disconnection here that has enabled a secondary market for ~2 to 5 year old PCs.

On the other hand, maybe this is natural, as computers are becoming more like cars; just like any car that drives is a good car, any computer that can do e-mail/net/office is a good computer, but people like buying shiny new products every few years and will thus upgrade when they can afford to. The relatively low cost of computers means most can. I would rather people's consumption habits change (which is why I said the secondary market shoudn't exist), but if they won't, well, good news for the re-users.

With respect to old gear, I was trying to highlight the difference between "useful" and "in demand". You might be able to rescue old gear, but you would have trouble building a business around it without subsidies. That's all.

And finally...
It almost sounds like you'd choose to deny them access to the tools..
-- if the tools are more of a burden than a help, then yes I would. Almost everybody assumes without question that sending used computers overseas is a great idea in which everybody wins. BAN, who I linked above, are environmental activists so they are going to see problems wherever they look, but for good reasons I think they see the opposite side of the coin; where you see tools being donated, they see the illegal export of toxic waste. Now naturally it is not for me to decide what's best for other people, but neither is it for any of us as well. I would only ask that people involved in such programs probe beneath the surface to make sure the goals of such programs are actually being met and that the gear that is sent overseas is in working order and, once deployed, will have a reasonably long second life. Otherwise, this useful and wanted equipment will be neither soon enough. BAN's position is that the costs of disposal (economic and environmental) should be paid by the developed countries which originally purchased the gear. This makes a lot of sense to me.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2008


You geeks are all welcome! I mean that in the best possible way.
I have nothing to contribute... I was just thinking to myself the other day - 'what the hell happens to all our crap?'... and so I looked it up and decided to share it.
posted by gman at 4:23 PM on October 23, 2008


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