by Michael Patrick O'Leary
The acronym WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. WEEE is the fastest-growing waste stream in the US and in many other countries. The US generated 3.4 million tons of WEEE in 2011. According to the latest EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) figures, US output of unwanted electronics has reached 47.4 million computers and 141 million mobile devices annually.
A 2009 UNEP (UN Environmental Programme) report estimated the world generates 40 million metric tons of WEEE annually. The US EPA estimates that the US recycles a mere 11% of its WEEE.
WEEE contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame-retardants and polyvinyl chloride. These substances cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive problems. Even a low level of exposure of children and pregnant women can cause serious neurological damage. Phthalates causes sterility; chlorinated dioxins cause Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In India, Dr S Sundaravadivelu, Special Secretary to Government (Environment), said only 15% of Indian WEEE was being recycled, while the remaining was mixed with normal waste. The government, public and private industrial sectors accounted for 70% of the total. Asif Shuja Khan, director general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, says unregulated WEEE activities do not only harm those working directly with the materials but also contaminate agricultural lands and livestock and enter the food chain.
A 2011 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the US military supply chain might contain over one million counterfeit parts, including crucial avionics components. Counterfeit Chinese parts have been detected in the instrumentation of C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. Failure of these components would leave pilots with blank instrument panels in mid-flight. Production of these counterfeit parts often begins as electronic waste, shipped from the US to Hong Kong.
WEEE recycling has become a lucrative business opportunity for companies that extract gold, silver, palladium and base metals such as copper and nickel from circuit boards. Their worth can reach more than $15 per pound. The microprocessors inside circuit boards can sell for more than $30 per pound.
The WEEE recycling revenue potential in India is around US$ 1.5bn in 2013; that could double by 2018. India Electronic Waste Recycle Market Opportunity Analysis gives in-depth analysis on the potential WEEE recycling market in India.
Many investment guides on the internet recommend shares in WEEE companies. The first pure public WEEE operator, E-waste Systems Inc announced results for the quarter ended June 30, 2013. There was more than a 1,000% increase in revenues reported for the first quarter of 2013. Revenue Grew to over $2.7 million in the quarter; Total Assets grew to over $3.5 million; Shareholders Equity improved by over $1.3 million
Who Is Recycling – and Who Is Not?
EWEEE could prove a valuable source of metals in developing countries if the dangerous work processes were to be regulated. All over the world, local communities are taking positive steps to encourage recycling. New York state residents produce more than 300 million pounds of electronic waste each year. New laws make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their own products and bans disposals of consumer electronics in landfills. A study from the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) shows that retailers are lagging behind consumers in social responsibility. The number of collection sites for electronic scrap has increased by nearly 80% but Walmart, Amazon and Sears do not have a recycling option for the electronics they sell.
Exporting the Problem
You might be salving your conscience by recycling your WEEE. What does the contractor do with it? In direct violation of federal law, Colorado-based firm Executive Recycling falsely claimed they would process waste in the US. Instead, they exported it. The fine was US$4.5 million and the court sentenced CEO, Brandon Richter, to two and a half years in prison.
The EU exported 220,000 tons of WEEE to West Africa in 2009. Some products sent as charitable donations, ostensibly for reuse, are unusable. In Ghana 30% of WEEE imports are unusable. Pakistan receives thousands of tons of WEEE every year from developed countries.
At Guiyu on the South China Sea, poorly trained unprotected workers cook circuit boards to remove microchips and solders, and use dangerous acid baths to remove gold from microchips. Tests found dangerously elevated lead levels in blood of 80% of the children there.
Over 35,000–45,000 child laborers of the age group of 10–14 years in Delhi collect, sort and distribute, WEEE without adequate protection, according to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).
Problems into Profit
Capitalism has repeatedly demonstrated its resilience in the face of challenges and has turned them into opportunities. Environmentalists condemned global industrialisation for polluting the atmosphere. Capitalism responded with carbon trading. The communications revolution combined with rampant consumerism has created vast amounts of cyber-clutter, as people feel compelled constantly to upgrade their phones and computers. Creative capitalists have turned this problem into profit by developing markets in WEEE.