Castoff E-scrap Holds Hidden Treasure

Castoff E-scrap Holds Hidden Treasure

Valuable resources in every discarded product with a battery or plug -- computers, televisions, phones and other household gadgets -- are being trashed in rising volumes worldwide, and unless countries start recycling more of this high-tech scrap, they will soon face serious shortages, experts say.

"Every year, the world generates 40 million metric tons of electronic scrap -- e-scrap," noted Jeremy Gregory, a postdoctoral associate in the Materials Systems Laboratory and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Only a small amount of this e-scrap is recycled. Last year, the European Union, one of the few regions with accurate statistics, generated 8.5 million metric tons of electronic waste, but recycling companies only handled 0.5 million tons.

The market value of important minor metals used in electronics is increasing rapidly. The price of indium, for example, a metal used in more than one billion products per year, has risen six-fold.

"The large price spikes for all these special elements that rely on production of metals like zinc, copper, lead or platinum underline that supply security at affordable prices cannot be guaranteed indefinitely unless efficient recycling loops are established to recover them from old products," Ruediger Kuehr of the United Nations University (UNU) noted in a report on the issue in April.

"This recycling of trace elements requires hi-tech processes but it is vital to do it. For manufacturers, improving the e-scrap recycling process is essential to ongoing production and repair operations," he said.

A decline in the production of electronics would be a serious problem for the whole world.

"We need to recognize that electrical machines are an essential part of today's life around the planet. Try to imagine a world without them, and the problems this would cause," said Klaus Hieronymi, director of the Environmental Business Management Organisation for the high-tech manufacturer Hewlett-Packard during a meeting on e-scrap at U.N. headquarters last month.

Gregory and Hieronymi are contributing to a new global public-private initiative called Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP). Amongst the 48 members are major high-tech manufactures, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Ericsson and Philips, as well as U.N., governmental, NGO and academic institutions, and recycling companies.

Their message is that e-scrap need not be hazardous to human health or the environment -- as long as it's properly treated.

Gregory explains: "The content of e-scrap is valuable and toxic. Most of the scrap is shipped to developing countries, where the local people recycle the goods in a highly ineffective and dangerous way to earn a living. This causes problems for health and the environment."

The toxic substances in e-scrap include copper, lithium, cadmium, zinc, nickel, arsenic and lead -- all associated with cancer and a range of reproductive, neurological and developmental disorders.

Experts say the effective recovery of valuable materials from complex electronic components requires hi-tech large-scale processes, and countries should cooperate to achieve a successful recycling system.

"Harmonization is the key," said Hieronymi. "Trade barriers must disappear -- a national approach to this problem can be fatal."

StEP hopes to create a global guide to dismantling e-scrap and maximizing the recovery and controlling recovered substances. The initiative consists of five task forces: Policy and Legislation, ReDesign, ReUse, ReCycle and Capacity Building.

"Companies involved in StEP will benefit through globally standardised, safe and environmentally-proven processes for disposal, reduction or reuse and recycling of e-scrap," said U.N. Under Secretary-General and UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel.

Van Ginkel also raised the issue of a "throwaway culture" in which users of electronic equipment buy new products not because their old product is broken, but because it's not up to date anymore.

"Member manufacturers will work to design products more easily upgradeable because we all agree buying an entirely new product is wasteful when what's really wanted are upgraded components," he said.

STeP also seeks to ensure that consumers know what they have to do with their obsolete machines.

"Collectively, the role of consumers is enormously important to the world environment, whether purchasing, using or disposing of electronic equipment," said Itaru Yasui, UNU Vice-Rector.

"Buying refurbished equipment, selling or donating unwanted equipment and finally recycling as a last step are among the choices we hope consumers will make more often. The StEP initiative is designed to make those choices easier," he said.

If a company follows the guidelines of StEP, its products will be marked with the StEP logo, so conscious consumers can make the decision to buy an environmentally-responsible product.