Why the city and cooperatives matter

Yesterday I trekked across Sao Paulo to Barra Funda to visit one of the city’s best waste cooperatives, Coopermiti. I say one of the best because cooperatives that deal with waste tend to have a bad reputation of being disorganised, inefficient and unfortunately dirty too (this came from two sector professionals who work with cooperatives).

Coopermiti are unique in that they secured a partnership with the Municipality of São Paulo, meaning that they are contracted by the city to deal with e-waste. Currently they recycle around 20,000 tonnes a month, employ around 30 ‘cooperadores’ and are pioneers in that they treat all types of e-waste. They receive the waste through donations and collection points and separate individual components before sending them off to appropriate recycling treatment centres. They are 100% efficient and create zero waste themselves.

I spent two hours there speaking with the President and then taking a tour around the place. Their employees are previously low-skilled or unemployed workers who are trained in the ways of a cooperative and learn to fix and dismantle waste, giving them great technical skills. Here’s Ana dismantling a desktop using the right type of equipment and protection.

Ana doing her thing

Usually when the private sector deals with waste, they only treat stuff that’s high in value: computers, laptops, mobile phones, printers etc. Nobody cares about hair dryers, keyboards, vacuum cleaners, electric shavers etc. Why? Because these products don’t contain the gold, silver, copper, palladium or tantalum found in ICT. Tantalum is made of coltan ore, which can fetch US$ 500 on the market, is found in mobile phones and mined in the Congo (in effect financing militias that force people into slave labour and destroy ecosystems).

What’s more, this cooperative also tackles social issues of digital exclusion and unemployment. However, without the help of the government they wouldn’t be able to operate.

So, there are some issues in our world that the private sector alone cannot solve. Treating all types of e-waste is one of them, which requires innovative and new types of partnerships, technology and infrastructure.

And when e-waste is this pretty, who wouldn’t want to work with it?

Instagram can make anything look pretty. I like these motherboards though.

Taking it back to the original source

Do you know how much aluminium you consume per year? Could you take a guess at how much copper your friend in a country like Brazil, Nigeria or China consumes?

It’s a bit of an odd question to ask yourself. Usually we’re asked to consider how much water or energy we consume, to which most of us splutter out some figures we don’t even really understand, like 5kWh (a unit I’m still getting my head around, but apparently most professionals don’t get it either, so here’s a good explanation if you wish to learn more, from David MacKay).

Yet, the electronics we own consume vast amounts of non-renewable resources. We’ve had an impact on the environment in just buying the product, even before we turn it on. I came across some data regarding the extraction of aluminium to produce electronic goods and I spent 40 minutes checking calculations because I couldn’t believe how much waste is generated.

The figures just reinforce how critical it is to recycle materials from electronics.

Metals for electronics: crash course
To make electronics, we need to extract metals. Some of the most popular metals found in electronics are:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Palladium
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Aluminium

There are also some less well-known metals, like ruthenium, antimony, bismuth, selenium and indium.

Your average mobile phone contains around 250mg of silver, 24mg gold, 9mg palladium and 9g of copper (according to this report by the UNEP). That’s not much on an individual scale, but consider that in 2010 1.6 billion new mobile phones entered the market.

For the 1.6 billion mobile phones produced in 2010, this required:

  • 400 tonnes of silver (equivalent to the weight of 80 African bush elephants)
  • 38.4 tonnes of gold (7 elephants)
  • 14,400 kg of palladium (2 elephants)
  • 14,400 tonnes of copper (2 elephants)

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper [1].

If we continue mining silver at the rate at which we did in 2010, we’re left with 23 years worth of reserves. So by 2033 all the silver in the ground will have been mined. The good news is that silver is fairly substitutable, but that doesn’t solve the issue of resource scarcity. For copper it’s been estimated we have about 39 years left and for gold about 20 years.

If these figures have stoked some interest, take a look at the Resource Revolution Report. It contains lots of information on all types of resources and how we’re guzzling them away.

Back to the start
In answer to the original question, people living in a country with a GDP higher than US$25,000 are said to consume between 15-35 kg of aluminium per year. Individuals living in a country with a GDP lower than US $5,000 consume less than 5kg of aluminium per year. The aluminium is embodied in TVs, laptops and computers amongst others.
To produce 1 tonne of aluminium, you need to extract 4-5 tonnes of bauxite first, which then gets processed into aluminium. One tonne of bauxite generates 13 tonnes of waste. So one tonne of aluminium generates circa 65 tonnes of waste (13*5). Click on the image to the right for better detail.

For 10,000 televisions, you need to extract 6t of aluminium, which generates 390 tonnes of waste (equivalent to 36 new London Routemasters [2]).

So far, so good. Now, lets consider that 200 million new televisions were produced last year. This means 7,800,000 tonnes of waste produced to make the aluminium for 200 million TVs. This is equal to 300 million London Routemasters.

These facts are for aluminium alone. The extraction of copper, silver, gold and other materials further contribute waste and pollution to the environment, and human health.

All these numbers provide a somewhat clouded, jaded, view of the environmental impacts of electronics. It’s not easy to get your head around what 7,800,000,000 tonnes of solid waste looks likes, or even means.

What’s important to understand is that mining metals to produce electronics is driving resource depletion and waste generation. The facts speak for themselves and make a good case for recycling. According to the UN: “Recycling 1 kilogram of aluminium saves 5 to 8 kg of bauxite, 4 kg of chemicals and 14 kilowatts of electricity. It also produces 95% less air pollution.”

The origin of electronic and digital life begins deep down in mine ores. The question is how long and how deep can we continue digging?

“A river bleached white with the waste of aluminium production, emerging into red lake.” Darrow, Louisiana – J. Henry Fair


[1] The Global Aluminium Recycling Committee. Global aluminium recycling: a cornerstone of sustainable development. London: International Aluminium Institute, 2006.

[2] Weighing around 11 tonnes each according to Wikipedia (no shame in using it as reference).

The Dark Side of our Digital Revolution

Digitisation – it’s the latest thing and it’s everywhere. Over the last 30 years, increasingly rapid technological developments have thrust us into what is often called the third industrial revolution, with technology evolving from the analogue, mechanical, and electronic formats to the digital stage. Core to this revolution is the widespread use of digital logic circuits, aka motherboards, and printed wiring boards (the ubiquitous green plats covered in wiring and nodes). Some of our favourite devices have undergone digital surgery: cars, radios and even fridges are all receiving makeovers, being implanted with microchips, enhancing their functionality, speed and price.

The Digital Revolution has been accompanied by a boom in the electronics industry. One of the fastest growing industries worldwide, global sales almost reached $780 billion in 2012. This year, over 3.5 billion units of electronic goods will be sold all over the world; goods that bring us closer together, allow us to stay in touch, shrink the digital divide and grant more people access to information.

What’s more, the Digital Revolution has a powerful social dimension. As described in this CNN article, the kind of attachment to digital devices and brands displayed by their most zealous fans bears close parallels with religious devotion.

A shopper in Sydney celebrating his latest purchase: the iPad

It is impossible to deny the various benefits that the digital revolution has brought: more jobs, demand for skilled workers and efficient technologies that unleash creativity and innovation. The recent surge in tech start-ups is testimony to the relatively low barriers involved in setting up a tech company. More and more students are studying computer science and programming is becoming an essential skill.

However, all is not sunshine and rainbows. There are signs that this digital revolution may be heading down a one-way street of consumption and environmental degradation.

A few startling facts:

  1. The UN has assessed that 20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced every year;
  2. On average, electronics are replaced every 18 months by consumers;
  3. Between 2008 and 2012, 1 billion computers entered the waste stream;
  4. Nearly 1 million tonnes of metal were used to manufacture PCs sold in 2007;
  5. 50-80% of electronic waste collected for recycling is shipped to developing countries, where it is dismantled in ‘back yard’ operations.

It is in the nature of the electronics industry that major producers like Apple, Dell and HP gain their competitive advantage by constantly pushing the innovation and features of products, and maintaining a pipeline of innovations, churning out new products every 12-18 months.

This short-term innovation cycle feeds the consumer frenzy described above, which further fuels the need to outdo the competition by developing new technologies.

The operations of innovation, product development and marketing undertaken by brand name firms are completed in developed countries. The less glamorous and more toxic tasks of assembling and manufacturing electronics take place in developing countries, like China.

“Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Current recycling rates are shockingly low, at about 10% of global production of electronic waste. As such, the electronics industry could almost be characterised as the pinnacle of the linear economy model: extract, produce, use, dispose. The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition found that in the USA, between 50-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling is exported to developing countries illegally. There, e-waste is dismantled in open acid baths, burnt in open fires near rivers and causes toxic harm to human and environmental health. Workers are paid a pittance of $1.5 a day to extract materials such as copper from mobile phones, printed wiring boards and other familiar devices.

The lack of an appropriate legislative infrastructure means that producers are currently not held accountable for the production of externalities and the ultimate destination of over 91% of e-waste branded products. Despite the EU having implemented the Basel Convention (that bans the exportation of electronic waste to developing countries) and the EU WEEE Directive, 75% of the electronic waste on the continent remains part of the ‘hidden flow’ of e-waste, which slips through regulation and recycling.

The illegal exportation of electronic waste is not without its supporters, most notably former Chief of the World Bank Larry Summers who appears to think that some parts of the world suffer from being “under-polluted”, with air pollution levels that are “probably vastly inefficiently low compared with Los Angeles or Mexico City”. Some arguments speak for themselves.

An e-waste worker in Guiyu, China

What’s more, all of this “rubbish” is actually astonishingly valuable. For example, you can extract more gold from a tonne of mobile phones than you can from a tonne of gold mine ore. So, it might be true that landfills are the mines of the future.

The vicious model: produce, use, dispose.

By now you might have spotted the vicious circle: demand for electronics is nourished through brand loyalty, marketing and planned obsolescence, which puts pressure on raw materials. The global electronics industry is a complex network of brand firms and suppliers, with manufacturers exposing their staff to hazardous and unsuitable working environments, whilst their clients like Apple are being criticised for doing little to improve working conditions.

With electronics being replaced at least every 18 months, the waste is piling up and policies have failed to incentivise an appropriate infrastructure and take back schemes to deal with all this rubbish.

What lies ahead

This linear economic model of manufacturing simply will not work. At this current rate, we might see some of the following consequences in future:

1)    As the developing world industrialises, greater demand for electronics will increase the need to extract more resources, which are already dwindling;
2)    Companies are ever increasing their rate of innovation and product replacement, meaning that more products will become obsolete faster;
3)    Rising mountains of e-waste and poor legal and recycling infrastructure means we will continue to export waste to developing countries.

The need for change is thus urgent and the opportunities exist. The recent Rio+20 conference, despite its failure to produce concrete targets, recognised that “fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development”.

Calls for the private sector to engage with a green economy have been made, as the drivers for economic growth we have relied on thus far seem to be vanishing. It is important to recognise how such an innovative industry is actually undermining our ability to innovate in future and grow a sustainable society.