Around the world, the e-waste industry is growing

ALONGSIDE THE electronics industry there is a growing shadow industry to deal with its refuse. 2.5 million tons of electronics were discarded in the US alone in 2010. This haul represents what Paul Watson, CEO of Green Technology Solutions (GTSO) calls, “An incredible windfall of lithium, gold, neodymium, rare earths and other valuable materials”.

How would that incredible windfall look next to the mountain of electronics that will be discarded worldwide in 2013? Reuse and recycling is becoming one of the world’s most relevant, urgent industries. A phone is made of metals: finite resources. New technology is valuable because of what it gives you. Old technology is precious because of what it is. The people capitalising now will become tycoons. Watson says of this waste, “Soon, we plan to send it to the bank, instead [of the dump].”

Recycling technology can happen in various ways. One can dismantle the device and reuse the constituent parts. Or, one can simply hand the device onto another user. Tom Tullie is the chairman of ecoATM, which manufactures kiosks that refurbish 75% of all the devices it collects: an example of the first way. He says, “There are going to be millions of people buying the new iPhone… When they do, we want there to be an ecoATM nearby for them to cash in or recycle their old phones.”

The 14,000 collection points of the Wireless Alliance harvest about 80,000 phones every month: an example of the second way. Vice-president Andy Bates says iPhones are recycled “99% of the time; it doesn’t have a major impact on e-waste. It will be [recycled] at some point, but not until something better comes along.”

At Apple’s rate of production, that better ‘something’ could be the next iPhone, or it could be one of the many other smartphones or ‘phablets’ coming on the market. It could even be a smart watch. What will be interesting to observe will be what happens to all the gadgets left behind.

This article is an excerpt from a longer article we wrote for The Ecologist.
Main picture: thanks to team8ab, on Flickr.

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