The paradox of e-waste

As we dive further in to explore the obsolete media tech, the mass of the electronic waste is appalling. My first thoughts about the topic is questioning why we don’t have more efficient recycling methods for these items. Why haven’t we developed ways to utilize the rare minerals and valuable metals on circuit boards so that the polluting waste disposal wouldn’t have to take place? Turns out that there is plenty of advanced methods for re-using the materials. Not only is there usable methods, these methods may even be more profitable than traditional mining of these minerals – a new industry “e-waste mining” may emerge [1].

So why is the recycling of e-waste still so minimal? Even in Finland, that is among the best recyclers in Europe, only half of the waste is recycled and globally the estimations of the percentage of waste that ends up being recycled is about 20%  [2] [3]. In Finland the legal responsibility of the recycling is pinned to the manufacturers and importers of the electronics, which was somewhat surprising for me – I always thought recycling is organized by the cities or the state. Seems like this model of waste responsibility only applies to few industries – vehicles, newspapers and electronics [3]. This goes to explain why presumably the waste from Finland also ends up in places such as Ghana and India, smuggled in labelled as second hand electronics, to go around the local and EU implemented waste disposal legislations – the companies don’t have the same incentive of rectitude as public sector.

In India, one of the graveyards of e-waste, the e-waste recycling seems to be mostly in the hands if informal workers who extract the minerals by crude methods in primitive conditions [4]. The informal recycling is not supported by the state of India – the workers often operate at night to avoid police raids and recycling units often operate illegally due to the environmental impacts of informal extraction methods. Many of the workers are afraid of losing their income and participate in hiding the underground recycling industry from authorities. It seems like the whole e-waste chain operates mostly in darkness and is difficult to monitor by the state.

Initially I thought that the problem of e-waste disposal was technical – that we produced electronics that can’t be recycled. After reading more about the topic, it seems that the problem is mostly societal – the tech for recycling already exists. However it seems that for the companies responsible for the waste management it is cheaper to illegally dump electronics to third world countries and these countries are unable to control or monitor the actions of the companies. If the companies responsible of the recycling are in the industry of producing the tech product i doubt that they would have much interest in more advanced recycling methods. And as long as there are people living in extreme poverty there will always be workers willing to participate in keeping the e-dumping in secret and extract the valuable mineral in primitive methods with cheap labour costs harming both themselves and the environment, locally and globally. The topic of sustainability therefore can not be separated from discourse of human rights, poverty and global equality. 

To have some hope, I found an interesting initiative called “Sofies” that works on creating legal recycling sector in developing countries. On their site they say that by cooperating with the local authorities and introducing proper recycling tech among other methods “The environmental impact resulting from rudimentary practices has disappeared entirely.”  [5] As a joint study from Beijing’s Tsinghua University and Macquarie University, in Sydney [6] found that e-waste mining is 13 times less expensive than traditional mining, maybe the countries afflicted by e-waste can turn it into profit with the right resources.