The most comprehensive study to date of computer reuse in a developing country, recently published in ES&T, suggests that such reuse may be more pervasive than previously believed.
Experts on the subject agree that reusing electronics can help reduce their environmental impact, but they remain concerned about how those electronics will be dealt with at the end of their extended lives.
The lead author of the new study, Ramzy Kahhat, was a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University’s (ASU’s) Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management when he began collaborating with Eric D. Williams, an assistant professor in ASU’s civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering department. Both men are interested in improving how electronic waste (e-waste) is managed in the U.S. and developing nations. Their work began as an effort to better understand how e-waste travels, or flows, in both the U.S. and developing regions, recalls Kahhat, who is now an assistant research professor at ASU.
The resulting new paper is the most extensive and comprehensive investigation into reuse of U.S. computers in developing countries, says Jim Lynch, the computer recycling and reuse director of TechSoup’s GreenTech program. TechSoup is a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting the technology needs of other nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. and abroad via computer reuse and other programs.
The ES&T paper focuses on the situation in Peru, where Kahhat was born and raised. He completed his undergraduate studies in civil engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Catlica del Per before moving to Arizona.
The Peruvian government maintains an extensive database to track the import of new and used computers and computing equipment. In their paper, Kahhat and Williams discuss how they determined that the country’s customs department makes “serious efforts” to ensure the database’s accuracy. Peruvian records show that the U.S. was the source of 57−76% of the used computers imported from 2003 to 2007, the years discussed in the paper. The remainder arrived from Panama (these were probably also of U.S. origin, according to the authors’ investigations), Norway, Mexico, and Korea.
The researchers determined that once the computers entered the country, they were generally handled in a very efficient way by the country’s reuse and recycling sector in a “reverse supply chain”. In the metropolitan capital Lima, the team documented that informal and formal businesses act together to generate a “highly dynamic flow [that] reuses and recycles almost every part and material found in a computer,” Williams says.
“At least 85% of discarded computers imported to Peru are reused, as opposed to going directly to recycling,” Williams says. This suggests that “the image of the trade in e-waste as mainly being about dumping unusable junk is, at least for Peru, inaccurate.”
Informal dismantling and repair of computers is not illegal in Peru, Kahhat stresses, and can extend the life of some waste electronics. However, he readily acknowledges that some of the informal sector’s practices are environmentally problematic. Peruvian recyclers sometimes use open burning, which also is used in countries such as China, India, and Ghana to remove plastic insulation from copper cables; this technique can release highly toxic dioxins. Informal recyclers in other developing nations commonly use acids, cyanide, and mercury to extract gold and other precious metals from microprocessors, though Kahhat and Williams say they didn’t see this in Peru. But such practices can “severely affect the environment and human health” if improperly managed, Kahhat says. “I don’t want...these environmental problems in my country.”
Kahhat feels that it is possible to stop the environmentally damaging practices without diluting or eliminating informal dismantling and collection. This informal reuse and recycling sector is valuable for generating employment in the country and in making computing technology more accessible to low-income families and small businesses, the paper contends.
Functionality and testing
To encourage computer reuse in developing countries and discourage the problems associated with informal recycling, the U.S. could mandate that only functional computers can be exported and that used computers must be tested to verify their functionality, says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit group that wants to require electronics manufacturers to take responsibility for end-of-life electronics.
Kyle says that she is concerned about any reuse policies that allow nonworking computers to be exported. The United Nations’ Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal governs how nations who have ratified it (Peru is one, but not the U.S.) handle e-waste containing hazardous materials; such waste includes computer monitors, printed circuit boards, mobile phones, televisions, and photocopiers. “While there is admittedly some confusing language [in the treaty] about whether exporting for repairs is legal or not, a Basel stakeholder group looking at this question for cell phones concluded that Basel does apply to exports for repair of nonworking, nontested phones. Therefore, one should assume the answer is the same for exporting computers,” she says.
The U.S. House of Representatives is currently debating a bill (H.R. 2595) that would limit the export of electronics equipment but would not call for products to be tested before export. A second House bill (H.R. 1580) discusses the potential of electronics reuse to reduce environmental impacts.
“Selling only tested equipment is a more responsible way for U.S.-based recyclers to minimize the amount of e-waste exported to places where it will be improperly managed. It does not, however, mean the working equipment sold into these countries won’t soon find its way down the same path,” says David Zimet, CEO of Hesstech, a U.S. electronics recycling company. The fact that Peru does not have a formal system for dealing with obsolete electronics equipment that is beyond repair—wherever it comes from—is part of the problem, he points out.
“Reuse can simply delay the disbursement of potential hazardous materials by extending the period before they must be disposed by a few years,” he argues. However, he adds that the task of setting up an environmentally sound electronics-recycling system would be relatively easy to do in a country like Peru: “It just takes a commitment to do it right.”
Williams is opposed to instituting requirements that mandate testing before electronics are exported, because he fears that they “could kill off most of the reuse industry” by adding to the cost of reused computers. One of the reasons this topic interests Williams is that he conducted some of the most comprehensive studies on the cradle-to-grave impacts of computers and memory chips. Because the lion’s share of a computer’s life-cycle impact comes from manufacturing, “extending the life span of a computer can significantly decrease life-cycle environmental burdens,” he and Kahhat wrote in their paper.
Williams, Kahhat, and Zimet agree that, from the standpoint of materials management, the best option for dealing with scrapped electronics is to recover as much of the raw materials that they contain as possible. Zimet points out that waste electronics are rich in metals, in some cases hundreds of times richer than the ore mined from virgin reserves. Automated technologies for recovering both metals and plastics are also being “developed and deployed in a larger and larger way...in recent years,” says Mike Biddle, president of MBA Polymers, Inc., the only transnational company that is operating plants to recycle plastics harvested from electronics.
Integrated metals refineries, or smelters, operating in developed countries can recover much more precious metal than informal recycling, Williams explains. In fact, Williams and Kahhat were surprised to discover that Peruvian recyclers have sufficient economic incentive to export at least some of the country’s scrapped circuit boards to European smelters.
However, the article also documents that other circuit boards are exported from Peru to China, Kyle points out. “Some reuse is happening, but at the end of the day, it sounds like a lot of the bad recycling practices are also happening. So we are still dumping our toxics on other countries,” she charges.
Williams stresses that although he and Kahhat feel that their paper provides “compelling evidence that much of the used computer exports to Peru is driven by reuse, we don’t know if this is the case for other countries—the situation could be different. But we hope this study opens the door to thinking and analysis which more broadly considers both product and waste aspects of the trade.”
Source: Kellyn S. Betts, Environmental Science & Technology