The Global Product Stewardship Council periodically invites thought leaders on product stewardship and producer responsibility to contribute guest blogs. Our guest blogger for this post is Brett Giddings, currently undertaking a PhD at UNSW focussed on e-waste and Manager, Member Services at the Australian Packaging Covenant.
The rate of ownership, and ultimately disposal of, electronic devices continues to increase year on year; the StEP Initiative estimating that 48.9 million tonnes of e-waste was produced worldwide in 2012, a figure that is set to increase to more than 65 million tonnes by 2017.
At the same time, devices such as mobile phones, laptops and televisions are becoming increasingly complex and challenging to recycle at end-of-life. Recycling the mix of valuable materials within this growing heterogeneous waste stream is important, but simply collecting products from consumers does not ensure recovery.
As highlighted by Adam Minter (keynote at the next GlobalPSC Thought Leadership Forum) in his 2013 book Junkyard Planet, inevitably some e-waste is shipped to locations where the manual labour, often better suited to dismantling complex products, is more cost-effective and within closer proximity to the manufacturers that will ultimately use the materials recovered. On face value, it is difficult for the public to support e-waste flows to these markets. While the situation is reported to be improving, the environmental and health impacts associated with poor e-waste recycling practices employed by the informal sector are well-documented, legitimate concerns with a quick Google search conjuring up images of youths burning PVC sheaths from copper wires and factory workers sitting in piles of broken CRT TVs and monitors.
Parallel to regulatory responses to these impacts is a growth in industry-lead supply chain transparency and certification, yet still the flows of waste (at times illegally) continue, and ultimately find their way to the informal sector. There have been many calls to stop the export of e-waste to regions that involve the informal sector, however there are inherent social benefits and value creation opportunities that should be considered and accounted for. These include the dramatic rises in ownership of refurbished electronic devices in these regions and the resultant social benefits that this access affords. At the same time, the developing world is producing its own increasing volumes of e-waste, with China now outstripping even the US in terms of total tonnes of e-waste produced each year. “Cutting and running”, as with many complex supply chain problems, is not the answer.
The viability of e-waste recycling is underpinned by the availability of high-value materials, including copper, gold, silver and palladium and the ease with which these materials can be separated and recovered from the units within which they are embedded. New, low-impact, practical and place-relevant solutions are required; solutions that mitigate the health and environmental impacts associated with practices such as chemical leaching and open copper wire burning, while maximising employment opportunities and resource recovery.
There is no right or wrong approach, but solutions should be systematic, linking effective manual recycling processes with the high-tech, environmentally sound, formal sector. They should be complementary rather than competing, also able to run in parallel and coexist with the formal sector, and empower both individual operators and those working in cooperative arrangements. One example is the East Africa Compliant Recycling operation in Kenya. Supported by Dell, HP, Microsoft and Philips, collectors are able to deliver electronic goods and receive fair payment. Electronic items are then manually sorted, dismantled, packed and shipped locally or globally for recycling.
Other solutions are technology-focussed. The Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre) at UNSW, has demonstrated that processing printed circuit boards using pyrolysis at high temperatures in an inert atmosphere can be utilised to recover high-value material fractions in a manner that mitigates both the health and environmental impacts often associated with small-scale processing. Currently laboratory-based, I am involved in a research project to explore the viability of this technologies’ use by the informal sector and in an environment where waste streams are far from consistent, evolving with each product iteration. Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of the SMaRT Centre, will be discussing this project and others as a panellist at the GlobalPSC’s next Thought Leadership Forum.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Product Stewardship Council.
With a background in product development and environmental management, Brett Giddings has held roles that span the full lifecycle of products; from design through to recycling. Currently undertaking a PhD at UNSW focussed on e-waste, Brett is also the Manager, Member Services at the Australia Packaging Covenant. He has worked in local government in a waste management role, contracted to several environmental consultancies, held a research position at UNSW and was Visy’s Product Sustainability Manager.