Transforming End-of-Life Bits Into Tomorrow’s Atoms: Society’s Love Affair and Breakup with Technology (Part 1)

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Contributed by Mark Evans, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Camston Wrather

This three-part series will explore the task of implementing a green chemical reaction discovered and researched in the laboratory to an industrial scale, taking into consideration the economic, engineering, ecological and market conditions associated with that task. The goal of this series is to highlight the importance of taking a multi-disciplinary approach when implementing applied scientific discoveries and, in particular, the challenges faced when attempting to bring the larger concept of green chemistry to market in a circular economy.

Camston Wrather recovers precious metals and polymer plastics from electronic waste using proprietary micron thermal separation and green chemistry. The Twitter version might read: Camston transforms end-of-life bits into tomorrow’s atoms. The structure of this series will first touch on the consumption and disposal of electronic waste (e-waste) and its environmental and human health impacts (Part 1); followed by a technical overview of current resource recovery methods, both informal and formal (Part 2); and lastly, how implementing a green solution necessarily entails a multi-disciplinary approach (Part 3).

The Love Affair

The annual Computer Electronics Show (CES), an expo that showcases what is next in tech, recently wrapped up in Las Vegas, and to say we have an insatiable love for gadgets would be a gross understatement.

A Pew Research Center survey covered ownership of seven types of devices and found that roughly nine-in-ten American adults (92 percent) own a mobile phone, 73 percent own a desktop or laptop computer, 51 percent own tablets, 40 percent report having a game console; four-in-ten Americans own MP3 players; about a fifth (19 percent) of Americans have e-book readers; and 14 percent of adults own a portable gaming device, such as a PlayStation.

According to the Sustainability Consortium’s 2016 report, U.S. consumers were expected to purchase more than 1 billion devices in 2015, producing sales reaching $285 billion, which includes a 15 percent year-over-year increase in the number of mobile and wearable devices entering the market. This equates to approximately 24 devices per household, where at least four of those devices were connected to the Internet. In addition to recent sales figures, there were approximately 3.8 billion devices estimated to be already in use or stored in households in 2015, which equals approximately 30.5 devices per household for the 125 million households estimated in the U.S. (McCue, 2014).

There can be no doubt that our collective love affair for gadgets is real and growing; moreover, there are emerging categories to consider as well: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, autonomous car electronics, entertainment electronics, aerial drones, robots, app-enabled toys, musical instruments and wearable technologies. These categories indicate where the market is going as societies become more highly integrated in emerging technology and the Internet of Things (IoT).

There are more mobile phones in existence than there are number of people living on Earth. Based on the number of active SIM cards in use, there are more than 7.2 billion mobile devices being used, while there are less than 7.2 billion people on the planet. The growth rate of mobile devices compared to the population growth rate is five times greater.

Steve Jobs understood the intimate relationship between the product and the end-user, and no matter how close our relationship with our smartphones has become – how faithfully we keep them with us, how we store and share our digital lives and memories on them, or how we hold them to our faces and whisper into them – we rarely wonder where they go when they die.

The Breakup

According to the UN Environmental Programme (2015) and Solving the E-Waste Program (StEP, 2016), 85 percent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly $40.6 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year. Americans throw out over 350,000 cellphones and 127,000 computers every day – and yes, this includes the old computer you dropped off at the local electronics recycling drive. This e-waste is the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream and accounts for over 70 percent of our toxic waste.

According to a CalRecycle statewide report, California diverted, via its sea ports, over 2.5 billion pounds (1.26 million tons) of non-ferrous e-waste to developing countries. CalRecycle is also forthcoming and intellectually honest about how it determines California’s recycling rate. By law, California is permitted to count its diversion activities towards the state’s recycling rate totals. Thus, when adjusted to exclude its diversion numbers, the state’s recycling rate dramatically drops. This is an important distinction and perhaps the most salient point of this article:

What is being counted as being recycled has never been truly recycled in the first place, but diverted.

There are many top Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who flood their social media posts with dazzling statistics on how much e-waste their company has “diverted,” yet it remains questionable as to what this actually entails. Is it greenwashing to report diversion rates if the reality is the consistent and illegal dumping of e-waste in developing countries?

The very technology that has enabled a standard of living far beyond that imagined by previous generations is currently being illegally dumped or legally diverted to developing countries, and its legacy will be one of lost opportunity, waste and environmental degradation. According to leading researchers, today’s technology revolution produces over 42 million metric tons of e-waste per year and directly causes environmental contamination and the escalation of human health and safety issues.

To better grasp the size of this e-waste stream: 42 million metric tons is equal to 92,568,000,000 pounds, or roughly 3.5 million fully loaded semi-tractor trailers. If you lined these trucks from end-to-end, they would stretch from San Diego to Boston and back 18 times. That’s the amount of e-waste already in the system and ready for end-of-life (EOL) processing each and every year.

In general, e-waste flows to disadvantaged and historically marginalized areas. A study commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that it was 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to Asia than it was to process it in the United States. Recovered devices and materials flow to where the most value can be gained with the least cost, including locations that may not have facilities or processes to protect workers and the environment. The incentives for e-waste movement, both legally and illegally, are enormous.

In the U.S., industry moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of 4 million pounds of material in order to provide one average middle-class American family's needs for one year. For example, the mining industry needs to produce 48,000 pounds of minerals per person per year for all 320+ million Americans just so we can maintain our standard of living. That means the mining industry needs to produce 7.1 billion tons of minerals each year just to keep pace.

Each of us will consume and use 3.7 million pounds of minerals, metals and fuels in our lifetime. One ton of electronic waste contains, on average, 40-800 times the concentration of precious metals than one ton of mining ore. Case in point, one ton of smartphones, approximately 10,000 units (a tiny fraction of today’s 1 billion annual production) contains, on average, 10.9 ounces of gold. To produce 10.9 ounces of gold from mining activities would take processing over one million pounds of earth.

It is estimated that a total of 700,000 workers are employed in the informal e-waste collection and recycling industry in China. The majority of e-waste imported to China is deposited in rural “recycling villages” clustered along the southeastern coast of China near major shipping ports such as Hong Kong, Xiamen, Ningbo, and Tianjin.

The widespread dumping of toxic e-waste into waterways, as well as the release of chemicals into the atmosphere from the open combustion and smelting of e-waste materials, has led to significant ecological damage and the poisoning of surrounding villages. Soil samples taken from an open burning site for circuit boards revealed lead concentrations ranging from 856 mg/kg to 7038 mg/kg, far exceeding the environmental pollutant reference value of 190 mg/kg.

To close out this first installment, please watch the first minute of the investigative television broadcast 60 Minutes here​.

Stay tuned next month for Part 2: A technical overview of current resource recovery methods, both informal and formal.


Mark Evans is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Camston Wrather and a University of California at Berkeley, Alumni.

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