Yesterday we reviewed what Nielson polling showed us about the drive for information about our smart phones and how to make them smarter still. With that drive eventually comes the drive to upgrade hardware that can run ever more sophisticated devices. Getting rid of the old devices is a rising problem. Little of the materials of such devices sits intertly when dropped in a landfill, but recycling all that stuff is not easy, or cheap. Moreover, the rise of consumer cultures in China and India (et al.) improves standards of living, but increase the risks of e-waste for everyone. What to do about the ‘old’ smartphone/tablet/desktop (refrigerator, space heater, dehumidifier… all of which have microchips and high-tech silicates nowadays)?
The United Nations released a report on e-waste this past February that pointed out not the present problems (real though they are), but the pending crisis of exploding consumer economies in south and east Asia (where a generation or two ago the goods were produced, but not bought). To start with the harrowing figures: “In South Africa and China, the report predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India. By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.”
The freemarketeer would argue that a rise in e-waste shows a rise in a middle class that can afford upgrading with some regularity. And indeed, the rise of a sustained middle class in India (for many experts, like James Fallows, whether such a class exists in China remains an open question) is a great story of the turn of the millennium.
But to those who enjoy great growth, much must be expected in great efforts at sustainability. In China, for example, “most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold – practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.” Once in the air these toxin affect Alaska and the west coast of Canada, much less Japan and eastern Russia/Siberia. And the short-term reward of a trace of gold or mercury will not offset the damages caused locally, much less across borders and seas.
But many countries who are developing consumer classes are also developing means to deal efficiently and profitably with their e-waste. The UN reports the ideal of a coordinated regional response to help achieve economies-of-scale (and to encourage a growth in engineering and scientific skills):
Taking into account a possible growth of e-waste volumes in the next ten years as presented in chapter 3.2.2 [excerpts quoted above], a mid-term market potential for integrated smelters can be seen in China and/or India for the Asian region, in South Africa for the (southern) African region and in a South American country (most probably Brazil or Chile) for Latin America. It has to be noted that for an appropriate upgrading of existing copper or precious metal smelters, significant investments – especially in off-gas treatment installations – as well access to skilled labour and experienced engineers/metallurgist/chemists is a prerequisite.
The market for the objects is clearly international, so should be the market for the recycling opportunities.
Some of the steps in wealthy post-industrial nations to help the situation are fairly easy: return old technology to reputable dealers who work with recyclers (like Apple, , or ). Consider your motivations for upgrading, and see if the upgraded technology could be used by a school or non-profit or family member. And support greening groups in your area as well as those that are trying to influence larger global strategies. Economic and consumer growth for all should be an ambition of liberals and conservatives alike. So should taking responsibility for the costs of that growth.