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Inside the Fake PC Recycling Market 320

Posted by samzenpus
from the put-that-anywhere dept.
snydeq writes "OSNews' Howard Fosdick reports on the fake recycling market — one in which companies exploit cheap shipping, inexpensive labor, and a lack of safety and environmental law to export computers and other e-waste to China and Africa where it is 'recycled' with a complete lack of environmental and safety rules. 'This trade has become a thriving business. Companies called "fake recyclers" approach well-meaning organizations — charities, churches, and community organizations — and offer to hold a Recycling Day. The charity provides publicity, legitimacy, and a parking lot for the event. On the designated day, well-meaning residents drop off their old electronics for recycling. The fake recycler picks it up in their trucks, hauls it away for shipping, and makes money by exporting it to Chinese or African "recycling" centers. Nobody's the wiser,' Fosdick writes. Of course, the international community has, in fact, devised a set of rules to control e-waste disposal under the Basel Conventions, but the US — 'the international 'bad boy' of computer recycling — is one of four countries that have not ratified and do not adhere to these international agreements."
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Inside the Fake PC Recycling Market

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  • For the record (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TwiztidK (1723954) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @07:10PM (#32833400)
    I held a computer and electronics recycling day in my town. We were able to collect over 50 used computers and many other things. Several of them were refurbished and given to people who could use them, but the majority had to be recycled. We didn't ship them to China or Africa either. I'm sure that there will always be people out there trying to game the system to make a quick buck, but there are a lot of people who are just trying to help out (by reducing "ewaste" in my case).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @07:16PM (#32833468)

    I'm being serious. With the exception of the (large amounts) easy to recycle copper and aluminum, just dump all the useless crap into an active volcano. At 1300-2400F (700 to 1300C) in temp, it will go back to where it came from - The Earth.

  • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @07:53PM (#32833798)
    One of the reasons these computers are being chucked out is because they can't run the latest software - Linux is just as bad. You have to upgrade the OS to make it secure because after a while, the OS isn't patched for vulnerabilities. ex: I had a machine with RH 8 on it and I wanted to upgrade to Fedora for a more stable release and I couldn't because, the processor being too and lack of memory. I couldn't find any memory for the damn thing - at least reasonably priced (New memory is actually cheaper than the old shit)

    Windows will continue to bloat up and so will Apple's OSes. Why doesn't the Linux community make a nice slim and secure distribution that will run on a 486/586 with only 256M of memory - or less?

    I've been thinking about a non-profit for recycling these machines. Many many poor people could use them.

  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:15PM (#32833932)

    Fund more biotech? We've already seen bacteria that evolved to feed on nylon. It should be possible to engineer a strain that can eat fiberglass, plastics, rubber, whatever. Depending on what the byproducts are, you might even be able to harness them to make energy.

    So, ok, I'm not a geneticist, but this seems like a lucrative line of research. I'd be surprised if there aren't already people looking into it.

  • by jackbird (721605) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:22PM (#32833982)
    Nonprofit Technology Resources [ntrweb.org] in Philly does something similar, without the art. A very worthy organization, and one that I am constantly surprised local geeks haven't heard about.
  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AdamWill (604569) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:26PM (#32834006) Homepage

    It works (for a suitably small value of 'works') elsewhere. There's a recycling levy on all consumer electronics where I live (British Columbia). It gets pretty large for big items - complete computers, big TVs, fridges and the like. Several other countries and territories have them now, too. It's technically illegal to put a defined list of electronics in the municipal waste system any more, you take them to retailers who are obliged to accept them for recycling.

    It's almost a good system. I say 'almost' because the company that got the contract to do the 'recycling' is one of the big multinational waste disposal companies which, we're fairly sure, just ships it all to China anyway. But hey, nearly made it!

    Such a system can certainly work. People will bitch and whine and then just pay the fee anyway because they can't possibly *not* own the latest 89" 3D plasma monstrosity. Rabid consumerism can be made to work both ways, sometimes anyway.

    If you want a practical alternative for you personally, most major towns have a Free Geek or similar organization which will take old computers for *genuine* recycling. I believe there's a couple of phone recycling schemes that are on the level too. Not sure beyond that.

  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cduffy (652) <charles+slashdot@dyfis.net> on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:26PM (#32834010)

    Doesn't make economic sense? Then don't recycle it... yet. Eventually materials used will become harder to come by (this is already happening quickly for numerous rare earth metals) and recycling e-waste will become economically viable.

    Admittedly, this leaves is the (admittedly not at all trivial) question of safe storage in the interim.

  • Can't be done (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nbauman (624611) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:34PM (#32834092) Homepage Journal

    I don't think PC recycling can be done.

    It takes more work to disassemble a PC than it did to assemble it from those parts in the first place. When you're done, there isn't much of a market for old 128MB RAM chips, 30GB hard drives, 500 MHz motherboards, etc.

    Is there a viable technology that shreds computers with giant steel rollers and sorts the flakes according to material, and sells aluminum flakes, etc. and sells them? Is there a safe heat process? There must be something, since there are companies that claim to provide certified recycling to meet government regulations. But I can't find one. All I can find is stories of third-world dumping.

    It may be safer and better for the environment to dump old PCs in U.S. landfills than to send them to parts unknown for "recycling." We should be able to make landfills that can take appliances with heavy metals and electronic plastics without passing it on to the water supply.

  • "fake recycling" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by khallow (566160) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:43PM (#32834150)
    Looked to me like a lot of recycling was going on in the photos. Burning "e-waste" isn't recycling, but the other three pictures showed people in the act of recycling electronic waste. So what makes recycling, "fake" recycling? At a glance, it is recycling in a developing world country where environment laws of developed world countries don't exist or aren't followed, if they do exist.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @08:44PM (#32834162)

    I still don't get why we aren't mineral farming from all these dead electronics we're sending to the dumpster.

    How much energy does it take to ship them over seas? How much energy does it take to strip apart electronics?

    It's a net loss w/ shipping them since it's still gonna take the same amount of energy to strip them apart whereever they end up.

  • Re:Is this fake? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by grahamwest (30174) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @09:07PM (#32834350) Homepage

    Fake-recycler gets hardware donated for free.
    They pay $X in collection costs.
    They pay $Y to ship to China.
    Chinese company pays $X+$Y+$Z to buy the hardware.
    Fake-recycler makes $Z profit.
    Chinese company pays $A to strip hardware to components (copper wire, metal cases, individual chips).
    Chinese company sells components for $X+$Y+$Z+$A+$B to whoever is buying the wire and so on.

    $X probably isn't very much. It's not like it's a delicate operation.
    $Y is low because there are so many otherwise-empty containers going back to China.
    $Z doesn't have to be very much for the business to be worthwhile - it's not like it employs a lot of skilled people.
    $A is very low. There's a large surplus of unskilled labour in China.
    $B is probably low, but it's not like the company is doing the dirty work itself.

    As long as $X+$Y+$Z+$A+$B comes out cheaper than the cost of buying the stuff new everyone's getting paid. I honestly don't know how cheap new copper wire is or exactly what chips can be reused in this way.

    A lot of this is due to externalities, after all.

  • by tkrotchko (124118) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @09:50PM (#32834600) Homepage

    As recently as 3-5 years ago you could go to a hamfest get a reasonably up-to-date laptop computer and save $500-700 from a new computer.

    Now with new laptop with good specs going for $400-500, the margins are gone, so the hamfest guys are selling laptop computers for $300$400. There's no sense in buying used in that case since it has no warranty and will probably be less energy efficient than a new one.

    The issue really is that we're getting so efficient at building new computers that it makes the old stuff worthless pretty quickly.

  • by BUL2294 (1081735) on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @10:19PM (#32834770)
    So why is it such a bad problem for countries that make this stuff to get it back when we (Western countries, not just the US) no longer need/want it? I'm singling out China but not Africa here...

    Let's be fair... I don't want anyone, especially children, being exposed to chemicals involved in e-waste. But I'm of the mindset that if you want to take our jobs away and make a product cheaper than we (Western countries) can make it, then why shouldn't you (China) get it back when we don't want it or it's no longer useful? This treaty basically states that countries that manufacture items get the benefit and profit of manufacture, while incurring little-to-none of the costs of disposal. US landfills have had to deal with e-waste since the early days of radio and TV--most of which were manufactured here...

    To add, I have little sympathy for countries that can't or won't control what they import. Each country is responsible for what comes across its borders. It's not like someone's hiding 2 CRT monitors in the trunk of a car & driving them into China--we're talking about huge shipping containers full of these items. If Chinese officials are too corrupt, unwilling, or inept to stop the flow of e-waste, then they get what they deserve...

    [End of rant...]
  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Khyber (864651) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @11:21PM (#32835148) Homepage Journal

    "Fiberglass, for instance, is nearly worthless, what could anyone possibly do with the fiberglass from an old circuit board?"

    Shred it and make a new circuit board after de-bonding and a re-deposit in the 'hot' oven.

    "This fiberglass is mixed with small but significant amounts of lead, how would you remove the lead before sending the fiberglass to a landfill?"

    Hi, my name is electromagnetic induction, and today I'll be slowly increasing your temperature to make different materials leach out of you in different steps, so as to cause as little contamination as possible of what is being recycled and reclaimed from you.

    Oh, and it's *REALLY CHEAP* to do, the morons just don't want to build the facilities to make it work.

  • Re:For the record (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 400_guru (942410) <lbolhuis@frankeni.com> on Wednesday July 07, 2010 @11:58PM (#32835410) Homepage
    I pick up several thousand pounds a year of old computers from my customers. My family and I pull them apart and recycle as much as possible. Batteries, Steel. Copper, Aluminum are the primary money makers. By weight at least 95% gets recycled and once broken down is worth money. Last trip to the local recycler was several hundred dollars US. Some lessons learned from this activity. 1) IBM is the very best at building computers that come apart. Few different fasteners mean fewer tool changes. Most materials also separate quite easily. Even their hard disks come apart quite easily yielding their substantial aluminum content. 2) Compaq was pretty good at this as well. 3) Dell PCs are HORRIBLE to get apart with nothing standard whatever. Every model different, every fastener unique. 4) No matter what the brand, power supplies are the worst. Lots of copper and aluminum in them but also lots of capacitors - the number one contaminate in PCs. 5) There is a lot of labor in proper recycling so once old enough to get a real job the kids lose interest quite quickly. Better design for recycling would make the process much more cost effective.
  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CaptainZapp (182233) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @02:40AM (#32836146) Homepage

    I have been seeing stories like these for several years. Although this situation is clearly undesirable, I have still to see anyone proposing a realistic alternative. The bottom line is doing proper recycling costs money, people do not want to pay

    This is resolved here (Switzerland, and I think the EU too) for ages and very simply too.

    You pay the recycling fee upfront on a device. Say a couple bucks on a mobile phone 10 bucks or such on a laptop.

    This gives you the right to dump the device at any shop (selling such devices) at the end of it's lifecycle.

  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Darkman, Walkin Dude (707389) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @04:20AM (#32836584) Homepage
    Which morons, and can you clarify the process of induction recycling, I can't find much on google.
  • by wallydallas (1483081) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @05:15AM (#32836830)
    I just want to thank the folks at Slashdot for posting e-waste stories like this. I've got 45 bookmarks on e-waste http://delicious.com/joerowe/e-waste [delicious.com] I'm looking for other teachers to develop lesson plans for e-waste education. For example: National Geographic published a good story, but it contained some major myths. I've contacted NG and they refused to admit it's only a myth that computer screens from Monitex in Texas are turned into in low cost TV sets in Thailand. See the 5th picture in this set. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/01/high-tech-trash/essick-photography [nationalgeographic.com] BTW: This story was well documented by the TV show 60 minutes, which you can watch online. See my bookmarks.
  • by Nick Number (447026) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @10:40AM (#32839894) Homepage Journal

    Really? I've had no problem taking them old towers (with the hard drives removed), video cards, power supplies, and speakers. Do they not abide by the rules they have posted [bestbuy.com] for your state?

  • Re:Alternatives? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by eugene ts wong (231154) on Thursday July 08, 2010 @11:01AM (#32840152) Homepage Journal

    You right about privacy. I completely forgot about that. I'm fortunate, in that I don't really have a lot of information that needs to be private, because I'm not a very significant person. Maybe they should make these phones easy to destroy, so that all memory could be erased.

    As for the free paint [surreyreuses.com], yeah, I'm shocked at how easy it was. There were no questions asked. You could take everything, if you wanted. I don't know how far you are from BC, Canada, but if you want, just call them when you are in the neighbourhood.

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