E-cycling E-waste

Recycling old words to reprocess old electronics

3 min read

Automakers have long given their best designers free rein to come up with ”concept cars”-- prototypes that highlight some new design or high-tech feature but aren’t meant for the production line. Back in February, mobile-phone maker Nokia borrowed this idea and unveiled a concept phone called the Remade. The hook? It was made almost entirely of recycled materials, such as aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and even old car tires.

The Remade is an example of upcycling , a form of recycling that takes used or recycled materials and creates a new product with a quality or value higher than that of the original materials. Materials that are designed to be upcycled are called technical nutrients . Traditional recycling is sometimes described as downcycling because the quality of the material degrades with each life cycle. Recycled paper isn’t as nice as newly printed paper; recycled steel isn’t as strong as newly forged steel. (The in-between form—where the recycled material is basically the same as the original material—is called closedâ''loop recycling .)

Six billion humans generate an awful lot of e-waste (or for the hyphen-averse, ewaste ) in the form of discarded computers, monitors, cellphones, and other electronic gewgaws. The process of recycling their components or metals is called e-cycling (or often ecycling ), and it’s been getting a lot of press lately—and generating a lot of new lingo. Indeed, eâ''scrap has the dubious honor of being the fastest growing segment of the garbage system.

The sheer quantity of all this WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) is bad enough, but then there are all its toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, which leach out, harming nearby ecosystems. That’s why many municipalities around the world now mandate that old electronic appliances must be e-cycled. (According to Discover magazine, a new British law explicitly includes sex toys as an example of e-waste that must not be tossed out.)

It’s no wonder we’re starting to see lots of reclaimers , which are firms that process so-called brown goods -- obsolete electronic products such as radios and televisions. Reclaimers divide brown goods into historic scrap (or historic waste ), which refers to obsolete electronics manufactured by a company that’s still in business, and orphan scrap (or orphan waste ), obsolete items made by a firm that’s gone out of business.

Reclaimers reclaim as much as they can, not only from computers and cellphones (which contain millions of dollars worth of copper, gold, silver, and other precious metals) but also an increasingly wide range of electronic goods, including VCRs, CD players, calculators, radios, stereos, CB radios, fax machines, and answering machines.

The reclaimers sell what they can to manufacturers who upcycle the materials into new goods. What’s left requires certified destruction , in which an eâ''scrap item such as a computer is carefully and completely dismantled so that it poses no danger to the environment.

The hidden riches in cellphones and other electronic gear have been called green gold because they’re realized only through e-cycling programs. Large companies handle most of this, but some individuals want a slice of the pie too. These urban miners prize discarded electronics but also scour cities for scrap metal. This aboveground mining is usually aboveboard, but some underhanded individuals have taken to cutting down bronze statues, tearing down iron fences, and even stealing manhole covers, committing a crime known as materials theft .

Consumers are getting hip to the recycling problems inherent in electronics and are starting to precycle , or choose gadgets based on how recyclable they are. Some manufacturers take responsibility for their products cradle to cradle , extending a product’s life cycle to include recycling it into something new. If the manufacturer also handles these recycling duties, it’s called an extended producer . Most such manufacturers also offer voluntary take-back programs , in which consumers can return end-of-life devices at no charge.

Of course, you could also follow the lead of a nut-orchard owner in Australia, who wanted to attract birds that would eat pests. His solution? Convert the shells of old Macintosh computers into birdhouses!

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