e-Waste: Liability Or Resource?

For many years, electronic waste has been seen as a problem, but what if we changed our attitude and decided that it is an asset?

Dealing with obsolete equipment is the last thing many of us want to do. As well as the physical equipment, we have to worry about the security issues, ensuring that no commercial or personal data is left on the kit. But if the responsibility is faced, it could actually be rewarding.

A treasure trove of rare metals

Dealing with e-waste wisely could benefit the economy as well as the planet. It could contribute to a sustainable lifecycle for equipment, which also does more to support the human rights of people involved in creating and recycling it.

Consumers show clearly the problem that arises from our ignorance. Britons dump 17 million phones and other gadgets ever year, even though there are schemes to recycle them, most of which actually offer rewards of some sort for devices which are still usable.

The problem in business seems to be distressingly similar – but on a larger scale, and with more paperwork.

The intrinsic value of retired IT equipment is actually quite high. It can re-used commercially or given to good causes, such as charity Computer Aid, which reconditions machines for another useful life in developing countries.

Alternatively, if the machine is beyond use, it can enter the waste stream and be mined for its rare metals. Substances like gallium, indium and selenium are in short supply, and they don’t obey the normal rules of supply and demand. They are “hitch-hiker” metals, essentially by-products of the giant industries producing copper aluminium and zinc, so production can’t be easily increased through mining and extraction.

Since these metals are present in higher quantities in electronic waste than they are in commercial ore, it is obvious that e-waste is now an essential natural resource, necessary for building the next generation of electronic equipment.

Natural resource

Given that, it is a surprise that legislation such as the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive is even necessary. This stuff is so valuable, we shouldn’t have to be told to conserve it! As we know, people are not good at this, so the directive is setting targets for the percentage of waste that should be recycled.

This approach is criticised for missing the potential for re-use, and for instituting a bureaucratic system open to “profiteering”. Firms need to make sure their e-waste goes through a process that complies with the regulations, and (some have argued) this is an opening for processors to charge prices that don’t take into account the material value of the waste.

As with all such systems, it is easier to criticise such legislation than to come up with an alternative. Without legislation, the profiteering would be worse, and more waste would end up shipped to poisonous reprocessing sites in developing countries.

These sites, in countries such as Ghana, strip electronics down in a toxic environment. The value of the e-waste is understood, but the value of human life is not, and there are many casualties.

In some ways, these sites are a mirror to those making the gadgets in the first place. It seems that gadgets are made in exploitative conditions in new economies in the Far East, shipped to the developed world and then, when they have been thrown away, they can find their way to developing nations where their recycling causes more suffering.

Third world recycling is often illegal, while the manufacturing process is usually regulated by local laws, but protests against FoxConn, which makes devices for Apple and many others, have revealed that working conditions in the factories are clearly harsher than we would accept in developing countries.

The WEEE issue is going to keep nagging. It is a problem, but it is just part of the bigger question of how we manage the life cycle of our equipment, along with that of the materials involved… and the lives of the people who build it and dispose of it.

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Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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