The European Parliament on Thursday approved plans to force large electronic retailers to take back old equipment.
The new rules are as part of a shakeup of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and will gradually come into force over the next seven years.
Only one third of electrical and electronic waste in the European Union is separately collected and appropriately treated and the revised directive will increase the collection target from its current 4 kilograms per capita to around 20 kilograms per capita by 2020. By 2020, it is estimated that the volume of electronic equipment will increase to 12 million tons and the E.U. authorities want to see 85 percent of that collected and treated.
The retailer take-back plan means that larger electrical goods stores, with a shop space of 400 square meters or larger, will have to accept small electronic items, such as mobile phones, free of charge, without making users purchase a new product.
Welcoming Thursday’s vote, E.U. Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “Proper treatment of WEEE is important to prevent harm to human health and the environment, and its systematic collection is the precondition for professional recycling of the valuable raw materials like gold, silver, copper and rare metals, contained in our used TVs, laptops and mobile phones.”
The revised directive also includes a clampdown on illegal exports of waste electronic equipment. Equipment that is no longer under warranty can only be exported to non-OECD countries if it has been certified to be fully functional and sent properly.
“It is long overdue that we stop making developing countries the dumping ground for our hazardous waste,” said Green member of the European Parliament, Michalis Tremopoulos.
BusinessGreen reports that UK startup WEEE Systems has ambitious plans for addressing the e-wasteproblem and moving the electronics industry toward a closed-loop system. It plans to involve at least one manufacturer in developing a prototype plant that ultimately would see manufacturers taking responsibility for the full life-cycle of their products by helping companies reuse and recycle more, and more efficiently.
BusinessGreen quotes Bob Clarke, WEEE Systems chief executive, who explains the basic idea behind the company:
“The e-waste industry is bizarre in that firms currently pay you less than the old kit is worth to take it away and recycle it, but then if anything goes wrong and it does end up in an illegal scrap yard in the developing world you are the one that gets in trouble. We want to work with a manufacturer where they agree to give us 50,000 old TVs; for example, we’ll reuse or recycle them as appropriate and provide our partner with the resulting reusable parts and materials.”
WEEE Systems says it’s trying to help the industry look beyond the minimum legal requirements:
WEEE Systems believes that leading businesses will want to look beyond legislative compliance and embrace changes today in order to realise the tangible benefits available – including releasing the real estate tied up storing surplus equipment, protecting brand value and meeting corporate social responsibility objectives.
With raw material prices increasing, there is a growing demand for the value that can be obtained from re-used and recycled materials, further incentivising progressive businesses to take advantage of the material transformation opportunities available.
The BusinessGreen story says the company recently launched a new software package and service to do just that:
Dubbed Cosvcon – an amalgam of cost versus contribution – the new software and service package audits a corporation’s IT infrastructure, recording information on a wide range of metrics, including the equipment’s age, energy use, utilisation and carbon footprint.
The company then provides clients with regular updates on the status of their infrastructure and identifies the optimum time to retire old servers, PCs, phones and other equipment.
“The aim is to help the client realise the maximum transformative value of their IT, where we can say, ‘At this point the asset is perfect for the secondary market, but if you leave it for a year it will be good for the recycling market’,” Clarke explained.
In the “Practice of Everyday Life” Michel de Certeau investigates the ways in which users-commonly assumed to be passive and guided by established rules-operate. He asserts:
“This goal will be achieved if everyday practices, “ways of operating” or doing things, no longer appear as merely obscure background of social activity, and if a body of theoretical questions, methods, categories, and perspectives, by penetrating this obscurity, make it possible to articulate them.”
“ReFunct Media” is a multimedia installation that (re)uses numerous “obsolete” electronic devices (digital and analogue media players and receivers). Those devices are hacked, misused and combined into a large and complex chain of elements. To use an ecological analogy they “interact” in different symbiotic relationships such as mutualism, parasitism and commensalism.
Voluntarily complex and unstable, “ReFunct Media” isn’t proposing answers to the questions raised by e-waste, planned obsolescence and sustainable design strategies. Rather, as an installation it experiments and explores unchallenged possibilities of ‘obsolete’ electronic and digital media technologies and our relationship with technologies and consumption.
In a hidden corner of Hua Qiang Bei there are two large buildings that are primarily dedicated to cellphones. These, however, aren’t the same as the cellphone malls found in the district’s main street. Here cellphones are traded as a commodity or even as a raw material. Hundreds of small companies work with (and against) each other to squeeze every bit of value out of yesterday’s mobile phones.
Due to the vendors’ reluctance to give up ‘business secrets’, it’s hard to get many of my questions answered or to trace the exact source of the devices that are brought here. Some outdoor vendors have so few phones that it looks like they personally collected them from the trash to sell them in the adjacent street market.
Within one of the main buildings there is a large room dedicated to stalls selling these pre-owned phones. Each stall presents a couple of hundred of them. I often see them bundled together in threes or fours, though not always by type. Most of these phones look like they would still function but there are quite a few with cracked screens or other obvious damage. Apparently, they still hold value for whomever buys them. One entrepreneur I talked to, told me he bought his phones in bulk from a wholesaler who got them from garbage sorters in Hong Kong and other major cities in Asia.
I was most intrigued by the building dedicated to the down- and up- cycling of these phones. Outside, I see a guy sorting through big bags of phone circuit boards. I’m not sure but I think he might be picking out the ones with particular chipsets that are in demand right now.
At some, point the plastic shells have already been removed to be recycled in another process. There isn’t much money to be made there, but the low price of Chinese labor makes it worth someone’s time to separate the last bits of metal from the plastic.
Next, the boards are put under a heat gun to loosen the solder on the SMC’s (Surface Mounted Components). Then the components are picked off one by one with a set of tweezers and pre-sorted.
The components are often sold to another company in the building that specializes in the next step of the process.
Next, the solder is removed and the components are cleaned and sorted further. For many of the shops, this seems to be the main activity. With some exceptions, this work seems to be predominantly done by teenage girls and young women.
Some of the parts are so small that they can only be handled with tweezers.
Behold the precious jewels of our information society!
Although the components that are sold here don’t have the best reputation, there are a number of quality control methods used to make sure everything is still in working order. One of them is an optical check for any obvious damage.
More interesting are test setups that use rewired versions of the devices that the chips original came from.
These boxes are made-to-order for specific phones and specific parts. The shop that sells them is one of several tool suppliers in the building. There are others selling soldering irons, heat guns and books with circuit board schematics.
Finally the most valuable chips get reprogrammed or flashed and packaged into trays and tape reels (I’ve seen them do it!) that can be fed into the pick-and-place robots used to build new devices.
The next post will be dedicated to the other activities in this building, such as the (partial) fabrication of Shanzai phones.
Ever wonder what happens to your electronic waste?
That old computer or cell phone you discarded?
Do you want new electronics in 10 to 20 years?
If so, here is your chance to do something about it by creating innovative new uses for existing electronic waste, as well as its future prevention.
Electronic waste, or “e-waste,” generated by computers, TVs, cameras, printers, and cell phones, is a growing global issue. Through the Second International E-Waste Design Competition, participants are asked to explore solutions to both remediate the existing e-waste problem and prevent e-waste generation in the future.
The spirit of this competition is to prompt the industrialized world to dialogue about product designs for environmentally responsible green computing and entertainment. The goals of this competition are to learn about ways to reuse e-waste for new and productive means, explore your own ideas for how to address e-waste problems and contribute to the body of knowledge that advances the practice of environmentally responsible product design for current and future computing technology products. We invite you to create a broad range of design concepts and innovations for technology products that demonstrate fresh approaches and responsible solutions for green computing technologies. Engineering, design, sustainability, or business knowledge will be helpful but not required for success in this competition.
The Junkyard Jumbotron lets you take a bunch of random displays and instantly stitch them together into a large, virtual display, simply by taking a photograph of them. It works with laptops, smartphones, tablets — anything that runs a web browser. It also highlights a new way of connecting a large number of heterogenous devices to each other in the field, on an ad-hoc basis.
I had to pass a few horrid bylanes and blind alleys with no clear markers, using word-of-mouth guidance before I got to meet Harshit Patel, who had agreed to show me to an informal e-waste operation in the slums of Mumbai.
Photo Credits: Tushar Goyal
The city generates one sixth of India’s GDP, and its slums function like some kind of informal special economic zone, churning out everything from export quality leather goods, clothes, and pottery using cheap labour. According to a 2007 Guardian article, the recycling industry employs around 2,50,000 people. Stuart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog considers squatter cities like Mumbai to be hubs of opportunity, full of informal enterprises that engage in unlicensed and untaxed businesses. They’re the “dark energy of economic theory,” says a slide. And on a positive note, rapid urbanization as a continuing trend will defuse the population bomb, as statistically, people in cities have lesser children.
The talk has been tagged as “unconvincing” by TED users, and I would like to load the argument a bit further. It has to do with a particular social malaise that to a large degree afflicts us as a species – we take serious counter-measures and have strong convictions against direct risk (terrorism, theft, rape or violence), but turn a blind eye towards issues when the penalty is distributed. This, to a large extent explains why Mumbai city has filthy, claustrophobic hubs like Kurla, where people spit and litter without compunction, why people tolerate the burning of plastic and garbage right next to its railway stations. (rants go here)
Back to the e-slum for now. The whole area was caked with red stains and plastic gutkha packets. Graveyard workers who burn bodies traditionally eat paan to anesthetize themselves, and this computer graveyard was no different. Cell phone in hand, I wandered around, walking past a guy who was brazenly burning plastic off a bunch of wires to get at the copper. Around this time, Harshit called and asked me to turn around. He was going to give me a guided tour.
People here didn’t seem friendly, some were worried. My long haired photographer friend was drawing a crowd with an SLR camera in his hand. One guy came up to me and asked me if we were going to get them arrested. I don’t know if he was joking, I assured him that I had other designs. In these shacks, I saw workers extract copper out of wires using hammers and blades. There was quite a bit of hardware memorabilia in the form of decades-old chipsets and components – I saw hard drives the size of bricks, a Cyrix processor and motherboard, and a sea of glass, plastic and metal strewn around.
According to Harshit, the next chain of recycling takes these components out of Mumbai, (it mostly goes to Delhi, he said). Nevertheless, when the rains come, in all likelihood the e-waste pollutants seep into the soil, flow through the gutters and nallahs and into the sea. Dead computers and their galaxy of components have in them a number of rare earths and precious metals (gold, palladium, neodymium, etc.) worth recycling, but also contain a number of toxic substances that can spill into the ecosystem. The laundry list of toxic chemicals include: arsenic, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), mercury, phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Older, bulkier computers have a lot more precious metals apparently, which also explains, perhaps, why they were so expensive back then. It is fraught with health and environmental risks, which is by recycling them is best left to industries with ISO certification standards. Another reason to not try this at home: In all likelihood, a motherboard that sells for $100 will have less than a dollar’s worth of metals worth recycling.
Most of the e-waste ends up in the third world, some, in the land of the jugaad. According to SVTC, only 10 % of e-waste is recycled responsibly. “The rest are openly burned, soaked in acid baths, and dumped into rivers or piled into mountains of e-waste for scrap recovery.”
Harshit runs Techshop, an e-commerce website that sells computer hardware. The company has an e-cycle program that gives incentives to users while disposing e-waste in an eco-friendly manner. He was familiar with the problem at hand here, quoting a 2007 report by Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT), which says that e-waste from discarded computers, TVs and mobile phones is projected to grow at a rate of 15 per cent, and touch 4.7 lakh tonnes by 2011. Even though the zone here doesn’t exactly meet environmental standards; there is one good thing about this place, said Harshit. “The people here help reduce e-waste by working and identifying which parts are working. They take it and reassemble it into a working computer and sell it.”
The source of the e-waste and what’s being done about it The Earth from Above exhibition quotes a 2004 UNU report which states that it takes 1.8 tonnes of materials to make a desktop computer and a monitor. This includes 240 kg of fossil fuels, and 22 kg of chemicals. Pound for pound, it is a lot more energy intensive than the automobile industry. The same report gives readers a good reason to support durable products with a good servicing ethic, and platforms with a lesser number of upgrade lifecycles: “The energy savings potential of reselling or upgrading is some 5-20 times greater than recycling.” says Eric Williams, author of the paper.
Nokia has put up 1300 recycling bins across its dealers and centres in India this year, and Sony Ericsson claims to have cut the carbon footprint of its phones by 15% by using recycled plastics and smaller packaging.
According to Apple, hardware recycling amounts to just 1% of their product’s environmental impact, but we weren’t able to ascertain how this had been calculated. They further claim to have reduced energy consumption by using a combination of evenly matched power supplies, components, and power management software. According to their calculations, product use – the amount of electricity a computer consumes counts for 53% of its total greenhouse gas emissions.
The gigahertz race pushed the power consumption of desktop processors to outrageous levels, but lately, power efficiency has been given the emphasis it deserves. To a fair extent, computer manufacturers have begun to close in on the gap between power and power efficiency by making their desktops more energy efficient when idle. Intel recently unveiled a ‘Single Chip Cloud Computer’, the IA32, which has 48 cores running at a maximum of just 125 watts. It’s also another reason why we look forward to nVidia’s Tegra chipset, which promises to run a netbook for a week, and apparently only consumes 300 milliwatts of power in the Zune HD.
Energy consumption is coming down across the board and is not just relegated to the CPU powering your system: Apple’s page boasts that the Mac Mini consumes 14 watts of power at idle. Other manufacturers have also begun to follow suit. NEC came out with a monitor recently that consumes 20% less power than other LCDs of the same size.
Google.org, a philanthropic branch of Google is developing PowerMeter, which taps into smart meters and helps track energy consumption through PCs and smartphones. The service will eventually be rolled out in India through Reliance who have partnered with them this year. According to Google’s Ed Lu, they aim to save a “socially relevant amount of energy” through this software. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 40 million smart meters in the developed world.
How can you help? Reuse and refurbish
Older computers can be refurbished to boot on Linux, or they can be repurposed. An artist from New Zealand has turned circuit boards into lamps. Another artist, Benjamin Gualon, who has founded the movement of recyclism, has made a totally unique object of beauty and joy – a custom rock band kit out of 8-bit Nintendo consoles and a bunch of gamepads. Each gamepad handles one particular sound: bass, drums, synthesizer, percussions, etc. Surely our country of out of work electronics engineers can make things like these for cheap!
Harshit and I plan to start a website with instructions and design ideas to refurbish e-waste. It will be an open source hub for design ideas. We will try and repurpose hardware and e-waste into objects of utility and art. We already have a few ideas implemented, and there are plenty more ideas in the information ether. We welcome your thoughts and contributions.
Kids in the Ugandan town of Masindi kludged together this awesome homebrew radio, scavenging parts from a broken set and improvising the speaker and power supply with a lot of verge and ingenuity. from Boing Boing by Cory Doctorow
Using e-waste as raw material, our workshops offer participants to become familiar with basic hardware and software hacking / recycling while at the same time gaining hands-on experience making an interactive art project.