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The desire for perfect recycling is making the e-waste problem worse

Shipping our electronic waste to poorer countries isn't going to solve the problem of recycling – there's a more economic solution

We have a problem with our electronic waste (e-waste) and the best description of that problem is that we’ve let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The current zeitgeist insists that we should have a circular economy and that everything should be recycled, but this is the error. Some things most certainly should be recycled, others reused, but there should also be leakage in the system – virgin materials that are used once, then dumped. It is only by moving to such a system that we’ll be able to solve our current problems.

The most obvious symptom of those current problems is that we’ve nowhere to send that waste any more.

We’ve been exporting our plastics and electronics, often to China or to much poorer countries with laxer standards. China has decided it no longer wishes to import such waste and those poorer places are following suit, the latest of which is Thailand. However, this is not an isolated problem, with containers of e-waste backing up in Singapore and Hong Kong with nowhere to go.

The driver of the recycling mania is that we’re short of resources and they must be reused. I’ve written a book on this and the belief is incorrect. There’s no mineral that we’re going to run out of in anything usefully human in timescale, not even helium. The justification for recycling and that circular economy thus rests on more traditional economic grounds.

To recycle or not to recycle

If we make a profit reusing or recycling something then we most certainly should do that. A profit is proof that the value of the output is greater than that of the inputs.

Creating value through activity is what makes us all richer, it’s the very definition of the production of economic wealth. Recycling aluminium (it’s the energy embedded in the metal itself which is valuable) or iron and steel is profitable and much cheaper than making new metal from virgin ores, so this is something we should do.

Equally, recycling something where we make a loss is something we shouldn’t do as it makes us poorer. It’s only if there’s some third reason that we should do it – recycling radioactive materials makes a thumping loss, for example, but it sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

But more generally, recycling just to recycle isn’t necessary – we’ve no shortage of the base minerals, nor of holes in the ground to dispose of things.

Yet this is what we do, we insist on 100% recycling, and it’s why we’ve been shipping e-waste abroad, where such rules don’t quite apply. Trying to 100% recycle instead of doing just a good enough job is vastly expensive.

Certainly, there’s money in them thar hills of computers. There’s gold in chips and on connectors, the tin in solder, copper in motherboards, it’s not difficult to extract them nor unprofitable. We should be doing this.

But there are parts which get left over after we’ve extracted that profit. The fibreglass also from the motherboards can be used but it’s a loss making effort to do something with it. The plastics, well, they should really go into a furnace. Anyone thinking of trying to extract the lead from CRT glass needs their heads examined – landfill is the place for that. And yes, metal oxides in glass are at about the most stable and least likely to leach they’ll ever be in any form.

So why don’t we do this? We have all the technology we need to be able to do it without troubling the container industry for shipping costs to poor places. The answer being that as a society we’ve bought into the 100% recycling and 100% closed economy mantra. Thus that economically correct leakage out into landfill is something we insist shouldn’t happen.

Making e-waste profitable

This is where our insistence on the perfect becomes that enemy of the good, for the result of shipping these wastes abroad is that we get stories of people burning plastics in the open air with a naked flame, for example. That’s one truly great way to both poison the people doing the burning and also create dioxins for a deeper and longer-lasting problem.

To burn plastics, we want the sort of very high temperature furnaces which really only rich countries have. Or wire stripping being done also by burning rather than the more capital-intensive chopping and stripping machines we have.

The truth of the matter about e-waste is that, once we have a pile of it in one place, it’s profitable – that is, we’re adding value to the world – to recycle it only to a point. It is logical and sensible that we do so only to that point as that is what makes us richer. We should then stop and dispose of the remainder – and it is a small part of the whole – safely, which will mean some combination of burning and landfill. Proper furnaces and decent landfills, obviously, but that is the economically sensible solution.

Given that we’re running out of places to send it to, this is hopefully what we will do as well.

This just leaves us with the problem of getting a pile of it. It is always true about recycling – completely the opposite of normal retail – that each unit is worth more the greater the number of units.

One box in a house is worth less than nothing, each box in a pile of 1,000 has a positive value. We therefore require a method of collecting into that pile.

The answer is a refundable deposit, whereby each unit of electronics sold has a small (a few pounds) deposit attached to it. Handing a unit back into a collection point repays that few pounds deposit. Then we step back and allow the pursuit of money to scour the country for us, as it used to for lemonade bottles when they had a deposit.

We know how to collect waste these days. We know how to recycle it to a certain point without polluting. We do still need though to be able to dump some remnant part which is not worth recycling. We seem to be running out of poor places to send it to instead – so perhaps we’ll finally build a rational e-waste management system.

Read more about IT and the environment

This was last published in July 2018

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