Getting rid vs Leveraging … eWaste

The in-flow of eWaste in Asia. Credit: UNEP

The eWaste Value Chain. Credit: Sunita Puroshottam, Infosys

I already pointed out, in a post two weeks ago, the amazing numbers associated with the “production” of electronic waste and the potential residual value that ewaste contains.

Yet, Europe and US (as well as other advanced economies) seem to prefer getting rid of ewaste rather than leveraging on it.

If you look at the flow of ewaste worldwide you’ll discover that China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan are receiving enormous quantity of ewaste from Europe and US (see figure). Quite often, these receiving Countries are not dealing in an appropriate way with the trash they receive. They retrieve some materials, like copper, but usually these are the low hanging fruits, the one that are easier to retrieve using very low tech technologies (like hands, often belonging to children, and hammers).

A correct processing of ewaste requires costly technology, and as manufacturing technology –and materials used- keep getting more sophisticated so the ewaste processing need to become more sophisticated.

The design of a product should include the design of its management once it becomes a waste. This ewaste management spans over the entire “decommissioning” life cycle (see figure eWaste Value Chain). It starts with us, as consumers. By far we are not aware of eWaste problems and even less of potential solutions and how we can be part of the solution by managing our eWaste. Some of the products that we no longer use could be managed by ourselves (like a simple removal of the battery from a cellphone that we are no longer planning to use. The battery can be given to one of the many batteries garbage bins for appropriate management. Leaving it in the cellphone for a long period is bound to create leakage that are difficult to control and manage. Same goes for digital cameras…).

Once a product has reached its end of life there are aggregators that will be available to acquire it . Not necessarily our idea of “end of life” matches the one of the market (over 70% of the phones we are discarding are perfectly working and could be used by other people, in our Country or in different ones) and the aggregators can take care of reselling that product. By doing that we are not just avoiding to transform that product into an ewaste, we are also slowing down the production of a new product and, as I pointed out in the post on embedded energy, this saves quite a bit of resources (out of 85,000 cellphones that are discarded every day in Italy over 60,000 could be reused, meaning 60,000 less cellphones produced in a day).

It is therefore up to the aggregators to decide that a product has indeed reached its end of life on a world market and has become an ewaste. At that point the aggregator will hand over the product to a segregator for dismantling. This is often a manual process but the aim is to automate it by controlling the manufacturing phase and creating libraries of product management once it has become a waste. This is where ICT steps in and this is something we are considering as EIT Digital, along with the Climate and Raw Material KICs in our joint End-of-Life project.

Once a product has been dismantled its components can be given to a recycler (usually different components need to be dealt with by different recyclers since the processes, and technologies, required differ).

As one can easily see the eWaste value chain is quite complex, but no more complex than a logistic value chain. We have been able to create extremely effective logistics, with ICT being a main enabler, with very low cost and high throughput. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to create comparably effective ewaste value chain.

As in the logistic value chain there are a variety of technologies that can help monitoring and making the whole process more efficient, from sensors to data management.  The logistic value chain has shaped (and has been shaped) by parallel value chains, like transportation and containers and keeps evolving. The eWaste value chain is just beginning to influence and be influenced by other value chains and as I mention will have to influence some of the processes and design/architecture in manufacturing. We have come to accept, as an example, that a battery may be sealed inside a smartphone. This may not work well from the point of view of the eWaste management, hence a growing awareness on eWaste issues may force designers to rethink the sealing of batteries.

In addition, whilst the logistic value chain terminates with the customer (that has very little saying in the management of the upper part of the supply chain) the eWaste value chain begins with the customer/user and here the customer plays a significant role.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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