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e-Waste: The Sky
Is the Limit
Jan Krikke

What happens to end-of-life electronics? Because

of public pressure, e-waste recycling is becoming
one of the fastest-growing industries in the
world—and it’s profitable.

he world generates has been dramatic. The city of eling the trade. According to the
about 40 million tons of Guiyu near Hong Kong, known Seattle-based Basel Action Net-
PCs, cathode-ray tube as the world’s e-waste capital, work (BAN), recycling a PC in the
(CRT) screens, fax ma- is an ecological disaster zone. US or the EU costs about US$30.
chines, game consoles, mobile Workers burn printed circuit In China and other developing
phones, and other e-waste every boards over charcoal to recover countries the cost is about $2.
year. Barely 20 percent of this usable computer chips, soak Unscrupulous recycling com-
highly toxic waste is properly the boards in acid to extract panies charge up to $20 for each
disposed of and recycled. Some gold, and dump the waste in PC collected for disposal and
e-waste is stripped of precious the Lianjiang River. They open ship them to China, India, or
metal and unusable components CRTs with hammers to harvest Africa, often labeled as charity
are dumped in landfills, poison- the copper yokes. donations or scrap metal. Chi-
ing the soil and precious water These crude recovery meth- nese recyclers pay their work-
resources. Unregulated e-waste ods release massive quantities ers about $2 per day to recover
trade affects a growing section of mercury, cadmium, and oth- precious metals and reusable
of the population. China, one er toxins into the environment. components (see Figure 1). Un-
of the largest processors of e- Around 80 percent of the chil- usable parts like plastic casings
waste, has exported jewelry con- dren in Guiyu suffer from lead and ink cartridges are dumped
taining toxic lead from e-waste. poisoning. or burned in the open air.
But public pressure to recycle According to the Guangzhou The most comprehensive at-
e-waste is having a major impact, (Canton) Institute of Geochem- tempt to deal with the problem
and e-waste recycling is now one istry, Guiyu has the highest is the European Waste Electri-
of the fastest-growing industries concentration of dioxins ever cal and Electronic Equipment
in the world. measured (see http://ewasteguide. (WEEE) Directive, a law setting
China is the recipient of about info/node/3618). India and Africa, targets for collection, recycling,
70 percent of the world’s end- and other destinations for end- and recovery of electrical prod-
of-life electronics (see http:// of-life electronics, have similar ucts. The directive covers IT and ecological disaster zones. telecommunications equipment
2007/10/071022094520.htm). Several international treaties (PCs, laptops, monitors, key-
The country has developed a regulate the trade in toxic waste, boards, printers, and cordless
huge e-waste recycling cot- but corruption, broad interpreta- phones), consumer electronics
tage industry—and the result tion of the rules, and fraud are fu- (radios, TVs, DVD players, and

50 IT Pro January/February 2008 Published by the IEEE Computer Society 1520-9209/08/$25.00 © 2008 IEEE
video recorders), household ap-
pliances, and electrical tools.
WEEE puts the responsibility
for the disposal of e-waste with
the producers, importers, and
retailers of EEE goods. These
companies are compelled to
take back end-of-life products
and dispose of them in an eco-
logically responsible manner or
refurbish them.
Implemented in 2004, the re-
sults of the directive have been
mixed. According to Norbert
Zonneveld, executive secretary
of the European Electronics Re-
cyclers Association (EERA), the
EU’s recycling rate is still below
30 percent. WEEE places the re-
sponsibility for recycling on the

© 2008 Basel Action Network

producers, regardless of where
the product is made. Companies
must register with waste disposal
programs and track their prod-
ucts to pay for their disposal.
The weak link, according to
Zonneveld, is enforcement in
the WEEE policy chain. The 1 Woman in Guiyu, China smashing a cathode-ray tube from a
cost for implementing WEEE computer monitor to remove the copper-laden yoke at the end of the
throughout the EU is unknown, funnel.
but according to the British De-
partment for Trade and Indus- to 15-inch screen and $8 for a free take back and recycling for
try, implementing the directive 15- to 35-inch screen). New leg- all its products not contingent
in the UK will cost about $220 islation also mandates the prop- on a new purchase.
million per year. Despite the er disposal of cell phones. The Electronics TakeBack Co-
cost, industry analysts believe In 2007, five states (Oregon, alition has called on other elec-
WEEE will be a model for leg- Minnesota, Texas, Connecti- tronics producers to follow Sony’s
islation in the rest of the world. cut, and North Carolina) passed lead. Companies are urged to
China has also adopted WEEE, e-waste laws mandating that sign the “Manufacturers’ Com-
and India is likely to follow suit. electronics manufacturers pay mitment to Responsible E-Waste
for e-waste recycling in those Recycling,” which consists of three
Voluntary Programs states. Under growing pres- key principles widely ignored by
The US has yet to implement sure of consumer groups, and many recyclers in the US:
a nationwide e-waste recovery urged by the Environmental
and recycling plan. The Na- Protection Agency (EPA), man- • No dumping toxic e-waste in
tional Computer Recycling Act, ufacturers are responding with developing countries.
introduced by Mike Thompson voluntary programs. Last year, • No use of prison labor in elec-
(D.-Calif.) in 2005, is stalled Sony agreed to take back old tronics recycling.
in Congress. Current regula- products and promised to make • No disposal of e-waste in land-
tions vary by state and often sure that its recyclers meet fills or incinerators, including
by county and city. California a strict set of recycling stan- waste-to-energy incinerators.
prohibits the disposal of end-of- dards—and that it won’t export
life e-waste in its landfills. End- toxic waste to developing coun- Last year, office-supply chain
users of new cathode-ray tubes tries. Sony is the first electron- Staples introduced a take-back
pay recycling fees ($6 for a 4- ics company to offer unlimited program for any brand of used

January/February 2008 IT Pro  51

desktop and notebook comput- the world, didn’t exist six years hammer mill-based processing
ers, monitors, printers, fax ma- ago. Sims currently operates 20 line. Material from the chain
chines and all-in-one devices sites around the globe, process- shredder is sorted and sent to
for a fixed fee of $10. Keyboards, ing approximately 270,000 tons the hammer mill, where it’s sized
mice, webcams, and other small of e-waste annually. In 2007, it into fine gravel and mechanical-
items can be dropped off without recycled 25 million computers ly separated into ferrous, non-
charge. The fee covers the cost and TV sets. Now that it’s ac- ferrous, and plastic material. The
of collecting the e-waste from quired United Recycling Indus- harvested material (steel, copper,
retail outlets and transporting tries, Sims has revenues of more aluminum, and glass) is sold as
it to e-waste recycling plants. than $4 billion, employs roughly raw feedstock to manufacturers.
Staples worked with the Product 4,000 people, and grows 30 to The company is also building a
Stewardship Institute (PSI) and 40 percent annually. facility to convert recycled mixed
plastic into diesel fuel.

Now that it’s acquired United Recycling Certified Recyclers

Reputable e-waste recyclers
Industries, Sims has revenues of more than are usually ISO 14001 Envi-
$4 billion, employs roughly 4,000 people, ronmental Certified. ISO 14001
is part of the ISO 14000 family
and grows 30 to 40 percent annually. of environmental management
standards to help organizations
minimize how their operations
EPA’s eCycling program to test The North American market is adversely affect air, water, or
the process. The EPA’s eCycling well-placed to deal with e-waste. land. ISO 14000 is similar to
project is an alliance of consum- In fact, it’s dealing with excess ISO 9000 quality management:
er electronics manufacturers, capacity. According to Jerry it pertains to how a product
retailers, and service providers Powell, publisher of Resource is produced rather than to the
to offer opportunities to do- Recycling, there are 1,200 for- product itself.
nate or recycle used electronic profit e-scrap reclaimers in the ISO 14001 is generic and can
products. US and Canada and 500 non- be applied to any organization
profit groups with their own producing, manufacturing, or
Crisis Equals Opportunity facilities. None of them operate processing any product or pro-
The growth of the global elec- 24/7, according to Powell. “Our viding any service anywhere in
tronics industry—and the ever polling shows most reclaimers the world. It also covers spe-
shorter lifespan of electronics work at half to 70 percent of ca- cific environmental aspects, in-
products—makes recycling an pacity at 40 hours per week. In cluding labeling, performance
environmental necessity. It has North America, the issue is lack evaluation, lifecycle analysis,
also become highly profitable. In of volume, not lack of proces- communication, and auditing.
Europe in 2007, turnover passed sors.” Estimates on revenues Improper disposal of certain e-
the $1 billion mark, according in the North American market waste can result in heavy fines,
to the European Electronics Re- vary. Powell puts it between $1 such as $25,000 for dumping
cyclers Association (EERA). The billion to at most $3 billion. CRTs in land fills.
industry currently employs about Overcapacity isn’t preventing US e-waste recycler ARC de-
10,000 people with a wide range Canadian-based recycler Global veloped an elaborate infrastruc-
of skills: process engineers, chem- Electric Electronic Processing ture, including its own software,
ists, brokers, sorters, dispatchers, (GEEP) from investing millions to deal with the evolving regu-
and sales representatives. EERA in new equipment. GEEP, part latory landscape. The company
estimates that full implementa- of Barrie Metals Group in On- offers expertise in compliance
tion of WEEE would push em- tario, operates a state-of-the-art with electronic recycling, with
ployment to 25,000 people. 370,000 square foot facility in services ranging from reverse
This new industry is cre- Durham, North Carolina. The logistics and customized asset
ating a slew of multinational company processes discarded recovery to destruction services
corporations as well. The Aus- telecom equipment for corpo- and e-waste recovery. Among
tralia-based Sims Group, the rate clients and recently opened its 8,000 customers are OEM
largest e-waste processor in a $4 million chain shredder and manufacturers of electronics

52 IT Pro January/February 2008

and government agencies. In
2007, ARC diverted more than
50 million pounds of e-waste
from landfills. The company,
which employs 200 people in
nine plants, claims a recycling
rate of 98 percent.

Image courtesy of Wendt Corp.

ARC takes complete responsi-
bility for its customer’s legal ex-
posure to the disposition of their
e-waste. Clients have access to
a Web-based real-time tracking
system that covers everything
from requested pick-up time
to warehouse arrival, product 2 Titech’s X-Tract Separator uses atomic density analysis to identify e-
photos of items picked up and waste shred for optimal recovery and recycling of material.
received, and printable destruc-
tion certificates. At the end of ed between $700/kg and $1,000/ 99 percent of the aluminum
the process, customers receive kg (see from heavier metals. The X-
reports documenting key infor- minerals/pubs/commodity/indium/ Tract (see Figure 2) sends x-rays
mation such as product model indiumcs07.pdf). Analysts ex- through unsorted nonferrous
number, serial number, action pect the demand for indium to metal shred, using receivers
performed, material breakdown increase as companies ramp up to turn the x-rays into high-
categories, weight, value, and large-scale manufacturing of thin- resolution x-ray images, and the
final disposition. The report en- film solar technology. machine sorts the material by
ables customers to finalize their The most widely used ma- comparing the relative bright-
accounting functions for end-of- chines for sorting e-waste shred ness of the images. The higher
life assets and the report can be are the so-called eddy current the atomic density of the mate-
used for audits. separators (ECSs). The machines rial, the darker the image.
use magnets to extract ferrous The X-Tract, equipped with a
Clean Machines metals and eddy currents (al- fiber optics high-speed computer
Companies and research firms ternating electrical current) to control system, has a hefty price
around the world are improving attract nonferrous metals like tag (about $700,000, depending
e-waste recycling and recovery copper, aluminum, and stainless on the configuration), but recov-
technology. The ultimate aim of steel. The remaining inert mate- ers up to 2,000 lbs (1,000 kg) of
recycling (with zero landfill and rials (such as glass or plastic) are valuable metals per truckload of
100 percent recovery of the ma- sent to a second separator. But ECS waste. Prices of scrap metal
terial) is a major challenge given ECS, in use since the early 1990s, have soared in recent years, in
that much e-waste is composed miss significant amounts of cop- part because of demand from
of a complex set of materials. A per windings and other valuable China. The US exports more
typical PC consists of 23 percent metals. Given the considerable than $1 billion of scrap to China
plastic, 32 percent ferrous met- opportunities of e-waste recy- annually.
als, 18 percent nonferrous met- cling, some companies have in- Plastic recycling technology is
als, and 12 percent electronic vested in new technology that also showing progress, in large
boards (gold, palladium, silver, sorts additional materials. part due to the WEEE Direc-
and platinum). One of the most advanced re- tive. Sims Group developed new
Recycling plants operate heavy- covery systems currently on the technology to identify and sepa-
duty shredders to reduce e-waste market is the Titech X-Tract rate the various plastics found in
into uniform rough pieces. Sort- Separator and Finder. Wendt electronics devices. The com-
ing the resulting shred is increas- Corporation, the US distribu- pany is reticent about discussing
ingly profitable. A few years ago, tor, says the X-Tract and Finder its technology, but told the BBC
the rare metal indium used in pick up where the ECS leaves in 2007 that it involves “density
LCD screen mobile phones sold off. The Finder recovers most of separation” to get the required
for less than $100/kg. Between the stainless steel missed by the degree of separations. Granu-
2005 and 2007, the price fluctuat- ECS and the X-Tract separates lated plastic passes through

January/February 2008 IT Pro  53

different liquids, causing some Asian Growth amount generated by the region’s
plastics to float and others to In Asia, industrial-scale e- increasingly affluent population.
sink. Unlike metals, plastics are waste processing is exploding. Chinese consumers now discard
classified as “low-grade” mate- Chinese cities used to built so- more than 5 million PCs and tens
rial. The WEEE Directive man- called technology parks to at- of millions of mobile phones an-
dates plastics processing, but tract companies; now they build nually, according to studies by
the resale value of the recovered recycling parks. The Taizhou the environmental service divi-
material is unlikely to cover the Metal Recycling & Processing sion of International Enterprise
processing costs without major Zone in the Eastern Zhejiang Singapore. TES-AMM’s e-waste
technological breakthroughs. Province, the largest such park processing facility near Shanghai
Flame retardants and other in China, has attracted 22 re- is considered a model plant. A
additives make plastics heat- cycling technology companies. global forum on e-waste recycling
resistant and durable, but also Chiho-Tiande Metals, a lead- in Shanghai last year included a
difficult to recycle and bad for ing Chinese recycling firm, has visit to it. Among TES-AMM’s
the environment. 1,500 employees and an an- clients in China are HP, Dell,
Several Japanese electronics nual capacity of 200,000 tons. Nokia, and Motorola and several
Japanese multinationals. Formed
only three years ago, TES-AMM
Japanese electronics maker NEC is now operates in 17 locations.
experimenting with bioplastic that The growth of the e-waste pro-
cessing industry is fueled in large
degrades in approximately seven years. part by pressure from nongovern-
The material, made with the hemp-like mental organizations like Green-
peace, the Basel Action Network,
fibers of a kenaf plant, is used for insertion and Toxic Link. Multinationals
into empty laptop wireless-card ports or now demand a standard of pro-
fessionalism in e-waste recycling,
cell phone casings. (including certified destruction
of storage media containing sen-
sitive corporate data). Greenpeace
makers have pinned their hopes The company makes part of its persuaded Dell, Apple, Sony Er-
on plastics substitutes. Japanese profits from aluminum harvest- icsson, and a dozen other com-
electronics maker NEC is ex- ed from e-waste. The Taiding panies to eliminate brominated
perimenting with bioplastic that (Tianjin) Sci-tech Environment fire retardants and polyvinyl
degrades in approximately seven Protection Company in north- chloride from their products and
years. The material, made with ern China processes chips, is now targeting game console
the hemp-like fibers of a kenaf motherboards, cables, and other makers Microsoft and Nintendo.
plant, is used for insertion into components, and harvests gold, Greenpeace publishes a quar-
empty laptop wireless-card ports silver, and other valuable met- terly green ranking of electronics
or cell phone casings. In 2005, als. After demetalization, chips makers based on criteria ranging
Fujitsu made the world’s first and motherboards are used in, from take-back programs to toxic
personal computer cases from among other things, cement content in products they sell.
bioplastics (their FMV-BIBLO production. Only 90 percent of In the latest edition (see www.
NB80K line). NEC believes 10 e-waste material is recovered,
percent of its products will con- but it’s a significant improve- campaigns/toxics/electronics/
tain bioplastic by 2010. How- ment over the backyard recy- how-the-companies-line-up),
ever, some experts believe the cling operations in Guiyu. Sony-Ericsson, Samsung and
mass market for bioplastic will Tiny Singapore has no fewer Dell rank at the top, and Nin-
be limited to packaging material. than nine e-waste processors. tendo, Microsoft, and Philips
They point out that the produc- The largest one, TES-AMM, is rank at the bottom. Companies
tion of bioplastic requires more expanding to both China and In- appear to react quickly to a low
energy than conventional plastic dia, attracted by the opportunities rating; only Apple was ranked at
and that broad application of the offered by the massive amounts the bottom twice in a row.
material requires a technologi- of e-waste dumped by west- Notably, the volume of e-
cal breakthrough. ern countries and the growing waste pouring into China, India

54 IT Pro January/February 2008

and, more recently, Africa, is or poor people smacks of neo- International Chamber of Com-
still growing. According to the colonialism.” Mitra adds, “Pri- merce (ICC), and the Interna-
Basel Action Network, several vate parties should freely decide tional Council on Metals and
countries and organizations are if they want to buy or sell any- Mining (ICMM). But in the
actively undermining the Basel thing to each other. One man’s battle between free traders and
Convention. Among them is the waste is another man’s treasure. green traders, the ultimate win-
Liberty Institute, a Delhi, India- The informal recycling indus- ners will no doubt be global re-
based policy institute aimed at try in India alone employs more cycling giants like Sims, GEEP,
“promoting awareness and ap- than 30,000 people.” and ARC. With their ability to
preciation of a free society.” It industrialize the process, and to
opposes any kind of trade re- squeeze every last piece of pre-

strictions by state agencies: “The itra and his Liberty cious metal out of e-waste, they
West can impose its own restric- Institute have power- will ultimately put the backyard
tions or standards,” says Barun ful allies, among them recyclers out of business.
Mitra, director of the institute. the US government, the United
“But the West claiming to know Nations Center for Trade and Readers may contact Jan Krikke at
what is best for poor countries Development (UNCTAD), the

Fujii, Ann Q. Gates, Juan E. Gilbert, Don F. Shafer

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January/February 2008 IT Pro  55