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Materials that have value, but also hazards, are subject to collection and processing by informal networks.
Photo by Brian Taylor.

WEEE & Battery Recycling Conference: Formal introductions needed

As e-scrap recycling needs have grown, governments and corporations have begun to address the role of “informal” recycling operators.

December 14, 2020

Around the world, the established role of scavengers and precious metals harvesters who collect and partially process electronic scrap has prompted governments to consider how and whether to incorporate such efforts into wider government and corporate waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling systems. A final verdict on how to do this is unclear, said panelists and presenters at the International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference.

The e-scrap stream changes forms as technology advances, but a common thread has been the use of precious metals in circuit boards and copper wiring in varying amounts in appliances and computers. The presence of these metals provides a motive for ad hoc refiners and a network of scavengers to have set up what is often called an “informal” system to harvest these metals in ways that typically fall short of environmental, health and safety (EHS) regulations in OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) nations.

Another portion of the informal network is dedicated to repair and refurbishment, extending the life of older computers or smartphones that might otherwise be shredded in OECD nations.

Panelists at a roundtable discussion that was part of the virtual conference said stakeholders ranging from global OEMs to national governments in non-OECD nations are trying to figure out when to bypass these informal networks, and when it might be best to incorporate elements of them.

ALN Roa of Samalkha, India-based Exigo Recycling estimated that 90 percent of collected e-scrap goes to the informal sector in India. He said some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and government agencies are exploring “uplifting and inculcating” EHS standards to connect some of the informal collectors with the more automated, formal sector, but it “is going to be very tough.”

Roa said the informal collectors are part of an established reverse logistics network in India that is worth preserving. He said well-thought-out government initiatives “can do wonders,” and some “very positive steps” have been taken to formalize what he called thousands of these operators into a formal network.

Keith Anderson of the E-Waste Association of South Africa said his group is trying to follow a similar path to India. He said the informal collectors provide a valuable service, but it “comes at a cost in damage to the environment and to themselves.” He said one effort in South Africa involves an “academy” for “on the job training” with certificates for collectors and budding facility operators.

The informal collectors are interested in recycling because of the value of copper and precious metals, said Stuart Fleming of Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based EnviroServe, and that idea should not be lost. “You’ve got to embrace it and you’ve got to incentivize it,” said Fleming. “It comes down to incentives to make them your mates and your buddies.”

Those same informal collectors may show less interest in the presence of hazardous materials, according to Nigel Mattravers of Hong Kong-based Alba Integrated Waste Solutions. That could involve refrigerants in air conditioners, or devices with newer display screens. To safely dismantle screens in a way to avoid mercury exposure, “You need sophisticated equipment to do that,” which is unlikely to be found in an informal setting, said Mattravers.

Another emerging challenge for the e-scrap sector involves fires that often are caused by the presence of lithium-ion batteries found in the inventory of materials awaiting processing. Dr. Helmut Kolba of Germany-based Remondis Electrorecycling GmbH, who also is the newly appointed chair of the E-Scrap Committee of the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), said his company has reported three such fires, one of which put a facility out of commission.

The scourge is leading to insurance problems, he indicated, adding a high cost in a sector that needs to protect its profit margins.

The International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference, which took place Dec. 9, was organized by Waste & Recycling Middle East & Africa magazine and co-hosted by the Recycling Today Media Group.