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.

Into Eternity by Michael Madsen

I am now in this place where you should never come.  We call it Onkalo.  Onkalo means hiding place.  In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child.  Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death.  Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span.  But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.

If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization.  If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?

It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way.  Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry.  But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel.  Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.

Continue reading Into Eternity by Michael Madsen

A life cycle analysis of incandescent, CFL and LED light bulbs

Life cycle analysis of incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs – It’s important to make sure when you’re using a new technology that supposedly saves energy, that you haven’t just shifted the energy consumption from the operational to the manufacturing portion of the product’s life cycle.  This study compares three different lighting technologies: incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED bulbs, and asks what the total energy input is to get ~400 lumens of light for 25,000 hours.  Both CFLs and LEDs save about 80% of the energy over incandescent bulbs.  For all bulb types, the embodied energy of manufacturing is only about 2% of the total energy consumed over the bulb’s life.  CFLs and LEDs were roughly equivalent energetically at the time of this study, but the LEDs produced less in the way of toxic byproducts.  The general expectation is that the efficiency of LED lighting will continue to improve, while CFLs are a pretty mature technology.  The two best LED bulbs on the market today, with warm yellow light, compatible with dimmer switches, and giving about 800 lumens of light output (equivalent to a 60W incandescent bulb), seem to be this 13W one from Lighting Science ($30) and the 12W Philips A19 EnduraLED ($40).  The prices seem high, but as with gas furnaces and boilers, electric motors and pumps, the cost of the electricity or fuel you run through the device ends up dwarfing the capital cost over its lifetime, so paying top dollar for efficiency is worthwhile.

Links for the week of June 17th, 2010

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

Links for the week of June 4th, 2010

If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
Continue reading Links for the week of June 4th, 2010