It seems that the IT industry is not exploiting an opportunity to save money, help the environment and improve the lives of poor people in underdeveloped countries as effectively as it might.
The opportunity for a rare win/win/win focuses on e-waste. The first win is reclaiming the gold, silver and other elements that are needed for the exploding number of mobile devices from those that have “retired” to dumps in underdeveloped countries. The second win is removing those elements – which potentially are dangerous – without allowing the elements to leach into the ground water. Forcing the recovery job to be done right – something that IT departments and the organizations for which they work can push the government to advocate for – can save the health of the indigent folks who today recover the materials with inadequate tools. That's the third win – and it's a big one when it is understood that those workers generally are kids.
A lot of money is on the table. James Holloway wrote at Ars Technica that 320 tons of gold and 7,500 tons of silver are used in mobile devices. At current valuations, that’s $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver annually. But the amount of that total that is recovered from old electronics (as opposed to mined from the earth) only is 15 percent.
Part of the problem is that e-waste generally is sent to developing countries to be deconstructed. The methods used to reclaim the gold, silver and other valuable elements in these locales is primitive. Less is collected than if the work were done elsewhere, and the dangers to those doing the collecting is greater. There are no easy answers offered in the story. Here is an example of the risks:
The health and environmental hazards linked to crude e-waste recycling practices are well documented. For example, the widely-reported practice of burning cables and printed wiring boards to recover the metals they contain is known to release polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and furans (PCDDs and PCDFs) that can be toxic in even small doses. The combustion can also lead to the release of dust and fumes from the beryllium present. Inhalation can cause the incurable pulmonary disease berylliosis, the symptoms of which can in some cases begin to appear years after the last exposure.
This story at Bright Side of the News covers some of the same material as Holloway. It isn’t quite as comprehensive, but does offer both a good overview and some additional information.
Some insight into the complexity of e-waste – and, thankfully, efforts that are being made to handle it in a socially responsible way – can be found in this Forbes Q&A with Robert Erie, the CEO of a company called E-World. There is, according to Erie, good reason for optimism. Indeed, his view of the opportunities just about mirrors Holloway’s outline of the dangers:
While relatively new, and admittedly far from being perfect, E-waste recycling is now a sustainable worldwide industry. It spares hazardous materials from polluting the environment in which we live. It saves us from having to continue to mine the limited amount of raw materials from this planet; therefore it also conserves energy and natural resources. It has created thousands of jobs, in dozens of countries while being an environmental benefit to all.
Treating e-waste appropriately can be a significant winner for everyone. The bill of materials (BOM) of devices will shrink, the air and water in developing countries will be cleaner and the people will be healthier. Indeed, it is such a winner that it is sure to be addressed by a wave of aggressive companies such as Erie’s.