Recycling, waste and profit
When those old laptops, and even worse, desktops found their way to a better place, few thought how they would finish their journey. The 3kg of lead in some CRT screens seem pretty obviously hazardous, but the rare metals in more modern electronics should find a market. A typical circuit board can contain copper, gold, zinc, beryllium, and tantalum. Interpol have just released figure indicating the large quantities that we have been exporting to the developing world.
It doesn't seem to be helping anybody there much! Ruediger Kuehr is the executive secretary of StEP, which monitors every nation's e-waste. He explains that, "Christmas will see a surge in sales and waste around the world. The explosion is happening because there's so much technical innovation. TVs, mobile phones and computers are all being replaced more and more quickly. The lifetime of products is also shortening." The StEP Report shows up each country's purchase and wastage levels, but Interpol has fund 30% of containers, leaving the EU, just an example, contain illegal e-waste.
White goods such as old fridges, toothbrushes (motorised), toys, TVs, phones and computers are involved, and form a growing stream because of the short lives enjoyed by technical goods. They are outdated before they are sold, leaving a useful but badly-used mechanism to allow them longer lifespans with second owners. On an annual base, each US citizen "liberates" 29.55kg of his or her e-goods. Even rapidly-growing Chinese consumerism manages a healthy 5kg. Norway and Liechtenstein lead the European exodus of goods, with the EU average around the UK's level at 21kg.
It's all very well to throw numbers around, but what about the dangers involved? Instead of the label, "used", many of these goods are totally non-functional. West Africans or Asians receiving the containers are often individuals who have few health or pollution safeguards. Legitimate recycling would cost more, so the needed treatment is carried out without any rules or regulation.
The EEA (European Environment Agency) are aware of the used electrical waste, estimating an annual 250,000 to 1.3m tonnes, depending on their exact classification. A spokesman related, "These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment." In the US, MIT have guessed that millions of computers, phones and TVs find their way t Hong Kong, the Caribbean and Latin America. Landfill is unfortunately an alternative "sink" for the goods - perhaps up to 33%.
As we mentioned, the future will certainly see us recycling such incredibly rare and expensive metals. What is needed right now is a commercial operation to recover all of this loot. This is happening in Africa and Asia, but there is no need for this careless dumping onto a less-developed, even less careful community. Cars are already recycled by several major manufacturers, and so they should be. Perhaps these industrial icons are the potential key with which to unlock the whole industrial system. We must persuade people involved to be compliant with a universal code of recycling. Simple, isn't it?