Unintended Consequences

There\’s a reason this is happening:

The Chinese town of Guiyu is the graveyard of Christmas past.

It is where presents – game consoles, laptops, mobile phones – come to die.

It is also where they are reborn. In this giant scrap-yard, so dangerously polluted that its children are being clinically poisoned, the electronic objects of desire, a million tons of them a year, are broken apart, melted down, and washed in acid to be recycled into a new flood of imports for Christmas future.

Money, of course.

But no, it\’s not the gross capitalist exploitation of the workers sort of stuff at all. Rather, it\’s the environmental regulations imposed here in Europe that are causing it. A pile of electronics contains a number of valuable metals: copper, lead, tin and gold just to start with. There are a couple of ways to extract it: the hand method these Chinese are using (which allows you to extract the working chips as well) or you can have a highly mechanised operation. Essentially, you chop everything up into fine powder and then separate the metals as if it were an ore.

You can also be more sophisticated, there\’s a plant in Cheshire that recycles the solder for example, by exploiting a certain property of gold and solder. At 280 oC or so, they form a eutectic alloy (ie, the gold dissolves into the solder) so you can run the boards through a bath of the solder you have previously melted, and you get all the solder and the gold off the board. The chips then fall off and you have the copper and the board itself, which you can separate by chopping and flotation tanks. The fibres can be made into excellent insulation, the metals all recycled.

Now all of these methods are roughly comparable in cost….some cost more to do but you get more value from the recyclables, so the nett outcomes are comparable.

Except….except….most electronics waste streams also include monitors. The electronic parts can be treated the same way (there\’s also  nice plug of tungsten in there as well). But the glass on  CRT or TV is 25% lead oxide. There\’s no sensible (ie economic) method of recycling this. The logical thing is to recycle all the rest and stick the glass into landfill. But, of course, you\’re not allowed to stick lead into landfill, are you?

Which is something of a pity, for while metallic lead, or lead oxide, would indeed be dangerous to those in the future, lead tied up in glass is not. Glass is, in fact, one of the most stable materials known to man. The lead does not leach out into the groundwater. Not even acids extract it (which is why we use glass carboys to transport acids of course).

But the environmentalists see "lead" and insist that it cannot be landfilled, it must be treated as poisonous and thus disposed of in a very expensive manner. This then means that the more sophisticated, mechanical, recycling methods do not make economic sense to do here in Europe. Thus the trade to China where people are, as the article points out, killing themselves and their children in doing said recycling.

Wondrous, isn\’t it? By insisting on too much recycling, the rules make certain that not enough is done, by insisting that there should be no landfill, no lead entering the environment, they make sure that more lead does enter it.

Well done, eh?


2 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences”

  1. To an environmentalist, lead isn’t an element with particular properties, it is a route to proving himself on the side of the angels. “The poison is in the dose”, the medics used to say. With environmentalists, the poison is in the pose.

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