Organised crime has moved into the recycling industry – a development that has become clear over the past few months after a series of raids to enforce the EU\’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive .
In a raid at the start of June, police and officials from the Environment Agency targeted two east London locations – a farm at Upminster and an industrial site at Rainham – and forced open around 500 containers full of old computers, monitors, fridges and assorted electrical waste destined for illegal export to Africa, where it would be stripped down for raw materials.
Yup, lots of electronic scrap is exported to Africa and Asia where little kiddies poison themselves by smelting the metals over open fires.
No, we don\’t want this to happen.
But why is it happening? Would you believe me if I told you it was the very regulations themselves that we have about the recycling of such scrap? You should believe me, of course, given that I\’ve some experience of the scrap metal trade, having, over the years, bought and recycled offcuts from nuclear power plants, jet engines, old coins and yes, even electronic scrap.
The thing is, you see, that a pile of old electronics is a pile of money. Sure, there\’s a little hand separating that can be usefully done, get the glass out of it, perhaps the aluminium (PC cases) and the plastic. Then stick the rest of it into a furnace. You need a nice hot one, to make sure that cable plastic etc doesn\’t create dioxins, but other than that you\’re fine. You end up with a nice amalgam of gold, tin, lead and copper and we\’ve got long established systems that will separate these out for reuse. There\’s a nice copper scrap processor in Spain that does this on a regular basis for example.
There are also other ways: a little more separating by hand and you can take the solder and gold off the boards, electrolytically refine it to take out the gold and you\’ve a solder (which, before we banned lead in solder) could be sold back to PC board manufacturers at a 10% premium to virgin solder, it being purer you see. You can then chop up the boards themselves, extract the copper through water flotation tanks and the plastics and resins can be used to make rather nice and highly insulating bricks.
There are other methods as well: feed the whole lot into massive choppers and separate again by water flotation.
However, doing any of these in the EU comes up against two problems. One is that at some point you\’re going to need to use a furnace. And there will be slag from such. And the rules about what you can do with that slag mean that\’s expensive.
However, what really makes this sort of thing expensive is the rules about lead. The glass in a TV or monitor is 25% lead oxide (yes, glass is metal oxide for those who didn\’t know. Different glasses are made of different metals, silicon as the base for them, but others added. The lead stops your brain from frying in this case. Car windshlidis might have a lot of cerium in them, camera lenses lanthanum and so on.)
Now there\’s pretty much bugger all you can do with this lead oxide flavoured glass. Certainly, recycling it back into TV screens is grossly expensive, hugely so. It\’s better for all that it get dumped in a hole in the ground. And no, lead does not leach out of the glass: glass is perhaps the most stable substance we know of.
In the end, we know how to process out the metallic lead from these systems profitably, as long as we can dump the lead contained in glass. But the rules about what you\’re allowed to dump make it hugely expensive to do precisely this.
So, it becomes cheaper to ship the stuff to where the reprocessing kills people because the rules don\’t allow us to do it sensibly here.
This is the old saw, the perfect is the enemy of the possible. By trying to insist that electronic scrap is really recycled, rather than 95% of it being profitably recycled with a 5% landfill element, we\’ve created a system whereby only one third is recycled in any sensible manner, the rest burnt over open fires by Third World children. Which kills them.
If we really wanted a sensible electronics recycling system we would relax the rules a little here and this would make it more profitable to recycle here rather than export. Thus the recycling would take place here.
But we can\’t do that because the European Union says we cannot.
Then again, as we keep being told, it is essential that we remain in the EU because we must all band together to protect the environment, mustn\’t we?