Waste Streams turn to Gold

A couple of related articles in the past months have got me thinking about the trash streams we generate and its adverse impact in the developing world.

The National Geographic in an article “High Tech Trash” estimates that over 70 per cent of high tech trash winds up in landfills creating a toxic time bomb. The EPA estimated that between 1.5 and 1.9 million tons of electronic junk was discarded in 2005. The future looks even bleaker as millions of TVs will be rendered inoperable with the switch to digital transmission next year. Already the US discards nearly 25 million TVs and 100 million cell phones every year.

The remaining electronic waste that is not dumped in landfills is typically picked up by recyclers but not necessarily to recycle the materials. A large portion of the waste gets shipped to developing countries. The US is one of only three countries that did not ratify the Basel Convention (the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan), that among other things requires that developed nations notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments. As a result recyclers often ship electronics to places like Ghana, China and other developing countries. There, people either cobble together working computers or other equipment from bits taken from multiple units, or tear apart the electronic components to extract the precious metal content that they can sell. In the process the local population is increasingly exposed to hazardous levels of toxic by-products.

With the increase in energy and material prices, one would assume that there would be a greater business interest to extract more value from the downstream electronic waste stream. An article in BusinessWeek titled “Cash for Trash” points out that:

  • 8% of global oil production is siphoned off to make plastic each year.
  • Recycled plastic, however, requires 80% less energy to produce.
  • Recycled aluminum burns up 95% less energy.
  • Recycled iron and steel use 74% less,
  • Paper requires 64% less.

These are significant numbers and a terrific incentive to start reclaiming the waste stream. Obviously the investors seem to think so too. The article reports that investments in “waste and recycling” grew from $20 million in 2001 to $622 million in 2007.

At Carnegie Mellon University, a student team, ePanacea, won the Hienz School’s Social Innovation Business Plan contest with a plan to collect electronic waste in the US and recycle and dispose of it legally.

One hopes that with more investment and bright new ideas, we will significantly reduce the impact of electronic waste on the environment while simultaneously increasing the use of recycled scrap materials thereby reducing the additional amount of energy used in creating pristine product.

There is also potential for some interesting innovation. Reusable trash, whether it is glass bottles or plastic or paper, needs to be clean and separated. Colored bottles and glass separated by color or paper products separated by type or plastics cleaned of any food or liquid are coveted by recyclers. Unfortunately today most waste streams do not separate or discriminate.

Has the value in trash now reached a point that makes separating trash at the source economically viable? Are there some simple changes to citizen behavior or in process automation that might help address this issue? Is the time right to turn trash into gold?

One response to “Waste Streams turn to Gold

  1. i seem to remember reading some sci-fi book that told a story of the future where families intentionally tried to live near landfills so that they could more easily forage for plastic… a grim view of future but perhaps not so inaccurate.

    i’m glad to read that recycling these materials has hit a cost point that may put capitalism coincidentally on the same side as the environment… for the first time in quite awhile

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