From arstechnica, by James Holloway – July 17 2012, 3:00pm PDT:
The global manufacturing of electric and electronic devices requires a total of $21 billion in gold and silver every year, yet less than 15 percent of these valuable metals are recovered from electronic waste, according to representatives at the UN-backed initiative, Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP).
At current rates of production, $16 billion (or 320 tons) in gold and $5 billion (7500 tons) in silver are put into media tablets, smartphones, computers, and other devices annually. With growth in demand for smartphones and media tablets showing little sign of diminishing in the next few years, the flow of gold and silver from deposit to waste facilities is only likely to accelerate.
The result is that, collectively, refuse sites are effectively sitting on precious and valuable metal “deposits” worth billions of dollars. StEP points to the steady and extremely rapid growth in the price of gold in the decade up to 2011—from $300/ounce to $1500/ounce—despite a 15 percent increase in supply in that period. The values of silver, copper, tin, and to a lesser extent palladium (all used in the manufacture of electronics devices), are also markedly higher today than 10 years ago. Hence, e-waste itself is an ever more valuable, and therefore tradable, commodity.
Increasingly, e-waste is exported from developed to developing nations, particularly in Asia and Africa, where the cost of processing it is lower. But the efficiency of that processing is lower in those locations. StEP claims that, in developing nations, 50 percent of the gold in e-waste is lost due to “crude dismantling processes” and only 25 percent of the remainder is recoverable due to the rudimentary technology to hand. In contrast, 25 percent of gold is lost to electronics dismantling in developed nations, and modern facilities are able to recover 95 percent of the rest.
The Executive Secretary of StEP, Dr. Ruediger Kuehr, has slammed the state of e-waste management as “short sighted and wasteful of natural resources,” claiming that the accumulation of rare, valuable metals in waste facilities threatens the future supply of electronic goods—not only consumer gadgets, but also electric car batteries and solar panels.
But there’s also the human cost of e-waste management to consider. The crude recovery methods used at developing world recycling facilities expose unskilled workers, who are often children, to a host of toxic materials and contaminants also used in the manufacture of electronics.
The health and environmental hazards linked to crude e-waste recycling practices are well documented. For example, the widely-reported practice of burning cables and printed wiring boards to recover the metals they contain is known to release polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and furans (PCDDs and PCDFs) that can be toxic in even small doses. The combustion can also lead to the release of dust and fumes from the beryllium present. Inhalation can cause the incurable pulmonary disease berylliosis, the symptoms of which can in some cases begin to appear years after the last exposure.
In recognition of such health concerns, steps have been taken to curb the export of e-waste in both the United States and Europe. However, the 112th Congress’s H.R. 2284: Responsible Electronics Recycling Act appears to have stalled. Though the European Union has banned e-waste exports since the mid-1990s, the trade has continued under the guise of exportation for reuse rather than recycling—a perfectly valid loophole were it not used as a front, which, unfortunately, it is.
A 2009 report (PDF) by Interpol entitled Electronic Waste and Organized Crime describes “an industry in which unscrupulous operators are able to profit from disposing of waste cheaply and illegally abroad instead of taking the environmentally responsible but more expensive option,” by deliberately mislabeling containers of e-waste, or mixing waste with legitimate exports such as vehicles bound for the scrapyard. A new change in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive will require EU countries to collect 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes they produce by 2016.
The illegality of e-waste exports, from Europe at least, makes the practice very difficult to quantify. “The European picture remains unclear. Who? Why? What? When? Where? How? Are questions that should be posed—but can’t be answered when it comes to the illegal export of waste,” concludes a report (PDF) by the EU’s Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law. However, it goes so far as to assert that the “vast majority” of the 10 million tonnes of e-waste generated annually in the EU is illegally shipped to developing countries.
The picture from the USA isn’t much clearer, though it has been widely reported that 90 percent of the USA’s e-waste ends up in either China or Nigeria—a figure that appears to originate from an estimate made by Jim Puckett, Director of the Basel Action Network. The Network is a charity that campaigns for the ban of waste trade, which is restricted by the Basel Convention (which the USA is yet to ratify despite signing in 1990).
Though the scale of the problem may be difficult to assess, given the rising use and rising price of valuable materials, it’s a problem that is unlikely to disappear of its own volition. The trade in e-waste is inextricably linked to the value of e-waste. And though copper is increasingly considered as an alternative to gold where reliability is not a concern, gold is still prized for its combination of conductivity, ductility, and resistance to corrosion. Its use in electronics does not appear to be under threat, and neither does that of silver: a better conductor, though less ductile than gold.
StEP’s Dr. Kuehr calls for the recovery of rare materials from e-waste, and in doing so, he is effectively calling for an end to the e-waste trade as it currently stands, since the recovery of such materials necessitates high-tech methods that developing countries lack. Regardless, such nations are in desperate need of proper e-waste recycling facilities of their own, not merely to cope with the e-waste imported to date, but to be ready for the fallout from the rocketing domestic demand for consumer electronics.
Though in Europe a straightforward ban on e-waste exports has proven far from sufficient to curb illegal trade, it has at least provided a platform for further legislation that may prove more effective in time. It’s a start, in other words.