The scavenger economy

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

TODAY’S feature story on our Green Business page is the result of some research I did over the past two weeks into the problem of “e-waste” – discarded electronic devices and components – in the Philippines. It is not an encouraging story.

The reason e-waste is a problem is that the world generates some 41 million metric tons of it per year. The reason it’s a problem for the Philippines is that some of that e-waste ends up here, both from what the country generates domestically (about 127,000 metric tons per year, according to the best available data), and from what is imported from developed countries (an amount that is not actually known, but certainly measures in the tens of thousands of metric tons).

The Philippines is not the only third-world country that serves as a dumping ground for the world’s garbage, but any amount of e-waste is alarming because of the variety of toxic hazards it poses. That cell phone in your pocket or handbag is a small environmental disaster just waiting to happen, containing harmful amounts of mercury, lead, cobalt, cadmium, and nasty chemical compounds such as biphenyls and fluorocarbons.

But it also contains gold, silver, palladium, copper, aluminum, and steel, albeit in small amounts; get enough electronic junk together, however, and it becomes worthwhile to try to recover it. According to a 2014 UN report, the total recyclable value of e-waste is potentially as much as 48 billion euros annually; unfortunately, only about 6.5 percent, or a little more than 3.1 billion euros, is actually recovered, most of it in Europe where regulations about waste disposal and recycling are much more stringent than in other parts of the world.

The current thrust of government efforts to address the e-waste problem is to close loopholes that allow e-waste to be exported to the Philippines legally, in particular a 2013 order by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources which permits the importation of ‘recyclable materials,’ including e-waste. Stopping the advanced economies – according to data supplied by the Environmental Management Bureau, South Korea is apparently the chief culprit – from shipping their toxic trash to the Philippines is an admirable goal, but since that won’t cause the e-waste to magically disappear, perhaps there is another, even more productive alternative.

In quantity, e-waste is valuable. According to Australian researchers who developed a new technique to safely extract valuable metals from e-waste, a ton of discarded cell phones – about 6,000 handsets – yields about 130 kilograms of copper, 3.5 kilograms of silver, about 300 grams of gold, and about 100 grams of palladium. At current scrap metal prices, that’s worth of about $10,500.

Filipinos are rather ingenious when it comes to recycling and reuse of materials; every jeepney on the road is rolling thanks to engines and transmission assemblies (as well as some other components) that were discarded from somewhere else. Though somewhat untidy, the recycling business in the Philippines is actually more effective than it is in countries like the US that pride themselves on their environmental efforts. With just a little more organization and necessary management of health and environmental safety, the Philippines could establish a niche as an e-waste recycling center, and in the process, develop a resource stream for industrial development.

While somewhat dubious-sounding at first blush, there are plenty of examples of places that have made the “your trash is our cash” business model work in both the industrialized and developing world. Tooele County, Utah, a rather downtrodden and desolate place until about 20 years ago, turned its fortunes around by becoming a center for hazardous waste disposal – most of the county is waterless desert atop 10,000 feet of dense sedimentary clay, one of the few places in the world where it is actually safe to dump toxic waste. A little better example for the Philippines is the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, which has provided employment for thousands of workers and even helped to support a nascent steel industry, where what used to be ships is recycled into steel for other purposes.

If the Philippines can develop or borrow safe recycling technologies and properly police the e-waste supply chain – and there is no good reason why it shouldn’t be able to – the high value materials that can be extracted would be a boon to the economy, particularly in poor communities where various forms of scavenging pass for productivity. The waste has to go somewhere; it may as well come here in a safe and controlled way, where its value can be maximized.


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