How guilty should the West feel about eWaste in Africa?

It’s easy to see pictures of toxic eWaste dumps outside of Accra, Ghana (like the ones below by Michael Ciaglo) and be led into a rich-world guilt trip (like this one on Gizmodo). These are obviously horrible, toxic working conditions, but what exactly leads to them is much less straightforward than the “West dumps toxic waste on Africa” narrative.  The majority of the electronics being “recycled” here came most recently from Africa (yes, they were imported used goods from the developed world, but if you’re running an internet cafe in Accra, and getting Ghanians reading the Wikipedia… you’re probably not going to buy fancy new stuff.)  Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of western eWaste does apparently end up being recycled within the OECD.  See this article by Adam Minter for an overview (and also his global scrap trade blog: Shanghai Scrap).  And for vastly more detail, the Basel Convention’s reports on African eWaste.

Burning Wire

African Hands and eWaste

Where Christmas Lights Go to Be Re-Born

In Guangdong there’s a small town that specializes in recycling Christmas lights.  They chip the lights into mm sized bits, and then use a modified sluicebox (a vibrating inclined water table) to separate the brass and copper from the glass, plastic and rubber by density.  All of these bits are then re-used in other products.  The entire process would be uneconomical in the US, because our labor is too expensive, and there’s no market here for plastic scrap.

From the Motor Breakers to the Sample Room

A fantastic photographic journey through the reverse supply chain from Shanghai Scrap.  This is how we close the material resource loop.  Today, anyway.  No doubt it can be made more efficient in the future if we design for this portion of the product lifecycle from the beginning.  Apparently 40% of China’s copper production comes from recycling, and the shredded automobiles whose residues we use to cover our landfills?  Their fist sized metal bits are sorted here.  Wow.

This is what a closed-loop economy looks like today

A great series on the recycling industry in China from the writer of Shanghai Scrap.  We need to build a closed-loop material economy, and there are pieces of it around today.  This is one of them.  Mountains of fist-sized shards of shredded cars, sorted manually by women who are earning more than your average Chinese college grad.  Amazing photos.

Links for the week of June 17th, 2010

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Continue reading Links for the week of June 17th, 2010

There’s no place like “away”

Most things we buy are trash before we even get to know them well.  Paul Hawken estimates (Natural Capitalism, p. 81) that only about 1% of the mass which we mine, harvest, or otherwise extract is still playing a useful role in the economy 6 months later. The other 99% is made up of either inherently consumable, unsustainable goods like coal, consumable but potentially renewable goods like food (depending on what we do with our sewage), or just plain waste, cast aside in the course of manufacturing, or “saved for later” in some landfill.  Within the waste category, the overwhelming majority of the mass is stuff we never see, like the 20 tons of mine tailings and associated cyanide leachate that are generated in the making of each gold wedding band.  In some cases the right category is unclear.  Was the 800 gallons of 25,000 year old Laurentide ice sheet meltwater that got pumped out of the Ogalalla Aquifer to produce the cheeseburger Michelle and I split at Lucky Baldwin’s on Tuesday really waste?  It was non-renewably extracted, but then mostly evaporated harmlessly into the atmosphere.  Of course there’s also all the stuff we normally think of as garbage, that we wheel out to the curb each week.  If you live in Pasadena or Glendale, or many of the other cities at the feet of the San Gabriels, that garbage is now in the Scholl Canyon landfill, in the hills just to the west of the Rose Bowl:

Scholl Canyon Landfill

If you lost your virginity at Caltech, this is probably where the condom is today.  All the red plastic party cups you ever used at Munth parties are keeping it company, and the styrofoam cup noodle containers and plastic wrappers from your late night Maruchan ramen binges.  And the enormous stack of old class notes you didn’t have time to burn or recycle when you left.  All the leftover crap from you Ditch Day stack is buried here too.  And not just yours, but decades worth of Caltech students.  There really is no such place as “away”.  If you take a closer look it doesn’t look so bad really:

Scholl Canyon Landfill Closeup

Zooming in, you’ll see only a tiny area of actual garbage, where the trucks were working the day the picture was taken.  The rest of the landfill just looks like a construction site, because each night, they’re required to cover the garbage up.  In California, about half the time landfills are covered with dirt.  The rest of the time, we use what’s euphemistically called “alternative daily cover” or ADC.  ADC is anything that you’re allowed to cover a landfill with, that isn’t dirt.  In 1989, California passed a law (the California Integrated Waste Management Act, AB 939) creating the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and mandating that all cities in California had to divert 50% of their landfill waste by the year 2000.  When you use something as ADC it counts as having been “diverted”, even if you never would have sent it to the landfill before.

Among the things which qualify as ADC are sewage sludge, ground up tires, construction and demolition waste, compost, “green material”, and my personal favorite, the residue of shredded automobiles:

Continue reading There’s no place like “away”

Shared Links for May 26th