Waste products aftermarket: partIII – e-waste in the developing world

The UN  released  a report today detailing the dangers of e-waste in the developing world. (here) This issue isn’t new, but it is good that the UN is starting to realize how important it is to start dealing with this.   Not many of us know where our digital trash goes, but it mostly goes to the developing world.  The issue with this is that because of the valuable components within the waste, many of the poorest have taken the initiative, at the risk of their health, to disassemble the waste in order to obtain these valuable components and sell them.  Some grim details include:

Most of the recycling of electronic waste in developing countries such as China and India is done by inefficient and unregulated backyard operators. The environmentally harmful practice of heating electronic circuit boards over coal-fired grills to leach out gold is widespread in both countries.

The laborious task of doing this is often menial, tedious and most importantly, hazardous to one’s health, making it incredibly dangerous. But when weighing the option between eating and not, some will step up to take the risk and rummage through our e-waste for a few valuable components.

This issue was first brought to light after watching this incredible documentary called Manufacturing Landscapes. It has vivid images of the lifestyle that some Chinese have in taking part to profit from this, and it will either leave you shocked, fascinated or just downright disgusted.

A more deeper  look into the e-waste problem was documented by PBS’s Frontline.  The piece was entitled “Your Digital Trash.” It looks at some of the broad ramifications of e-waste that isn’t entirely environmental.  The most interesting part of this program was towards the end.  It dealt with an enterprising  social entrepreneur from India who built a business by investing in capital machinery that made the separation of parts for e-waste much more productive and less-hazardous to workers.  He hired workers at competitive wages to disassemble and collect the valuable materials from e-waste, all while ensuring a safe work environment.  Those valuable materials, most notably gold, would be then melted down in jewelery and sold on the street for a profit.  Right now the business is only small-scale, but there is potential, especially if India fashions a new law to ban digital dumps.

Before leading into the last segment of the program, the report focuses on a dealer who fills up empty container ships on the way back from the United States after delivering imports, and because the e-waste is loaded at little to no cost, sells them to digital dumps where they are taken apart irresponsibly. His quote certainly resonates when asked about environmental damage:

“I can only say one thing, if you want to do it environmentally, you have to pay. They have to invest in machinery, labor, everything. It isn’t worth it to pay so much money.”

I point this out because this is the real crux of the issue. Our e-waste is being sent to the developing world because residents who have a low-marginal product of labor are willing to take the risk and low pay in order to get the very small amount of value out of this waste. It shows how necessary legislation is needed in order to circumvent this, and jump start the proper investment where our Indian entrepreneur doesn’t need to fashion the valuable metals into jewelery, but is able to sell recycled waste on an open market. If it is possible to do this at Total Reclaim in Oregon, where labor costs are high and able to be sustainable through government support, imagine the type of value the developing world could get by investing in an industry dealing with e-waste responsibly. It will take some time before commodity prices will get to the point when it is profitable to invest in this type of business, but for now, legal intervention is the best way to jump start this industry so that it can innovate and build economies of scale and become a fixture of the industrial ecological web.

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