Where do discarded gadgets go to die?

Electronics surround us, drive us, entertain us, feed our families but, once we decide to upgrade or they die on us where do they go?

Increasingly, throwing your electronic waste into the bin and out to landfill is becoming illegal. In the EU the WEEE directive has made recycling or reuse mandatory for all member states. See more here.

Laws such as this are creating whole new lines of business that weave a complex web all over the globe. Along with new laws the high prices for precious metals are also driving these developments.

‘Above ground mining’

A Belgian company, Umicore, is in the business of reclaiming those materials. It extracts 17 metals from unwanted televisions, computers and cellphones and from industrial byproducts. The market for e-waste is international: Umicore harvests silver from spent photo-developing solutions collected in the United States and sells it to Italian jewelers. The company describes its work as “aboveground mining.”

Umicore houses a sprawling, state-of-the-art $2 billion smelter and refinery. Here, metals are recovered and processed. Then they are sold, sometimes to Asia, where they are used to manufacture brand-new electronics. An abundant resource is sent from richer countries to poorer ones, made into goods, then sent back. See page 1 of this article for more on how Umicore works its recycling smelter.

Mobiles do the walking.

Mobile phones are the most valuable form of e-waste. Each one contains about a dollar’s worth of precious metals, mostly gold. Last year, according to ABI Research, 1.2 billion phones were sold worldwide. Sixty percent of them probably replaced existing ones. In the United States, phones are cast aside after, on average, 12 months. Mobile phones represent only a part of the world’s e-waste problem. But they are a key to understanding how complicated it is.

GreenPhone.com  pays donors directly for their phones. Mail a BlackBerry Pearl, for example, to GreenPhone, and Heine will cut you a check for $65. And because Heine still is not entirely comfortable with all the paper consumption this entails, GreenPhone also plants a tree for every check it writes.

Each month Greenphone receives 20,000 phones of at least 800 different makes and models. They come in prepaid envelopes printed off the company’s Web site or from collection boxes at office supply stores and copy shops. The success of the business is based on how well it can assess and then realize the value of each phone.

Phones beyond repair, or with little value, are sent to Umicore for their gold. But because acquiring the phones costs so much, recycling them must be subsidized by reselling the reusable ones. The most valuable find their way to a room across the hall from the storeroom, where two employees sell them on eBay. Most, however, are sold via private auction to a stable of about 20 different resellers.

Africa is one of the biggest markets for used phones. Seventy-five percent of all phones in the least-developed African nations are mobile phones, and usage in many places is increasing by 30 or 40 percent per year.

There’s money in trash and it makes a lot of sense to reuse and recycle. Read more on this here.

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3 Responses to Where do discarded gadgets go to die?

  1. earthpal says:

    All good stuff Matty. The ‘recycle, reuse’ ethos is spreading fast.

    A church near us is collecting unwanted mobile phones to raise money – for the church itself and for Oxfam. I’m not sure where they are sending the phones but at least they aren’t ending up in landfils and are raising money for charity.

    And I have a broken dvd player that I need to get rid of so your post here has been very useful. 🙂

  2. matt says:

    I have a broken Ikea lamp and a CD player on the way out to neverland. The post has been useful for reminding me too that the council really does have to take everything electronic from us.

    It has taken a while for this to sink in, the huge significance of this EU directive. Hats off to them I say.

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