By Alexander Jung
The agency is proposing another option altogether. It argues that a voucher system could offer an incentive to return old equipment. UBA President Jochen Flasbarth advocates using this type of system, at least for mobile phones. Mobile communications providers could donate free minutes as a reward. Currently, no more than one in four mobile phones is being recycled, even though the network operators pay the postage for customers to return the devices.
It would be even more productive, however, if police and customs officials could gain control over the illegal export of electronic waste. Tens of thousands of tons are lost to the materials cycle because dodgy dealers collect the material at flea markets or by digging through bulk waste and household refuse left at the curb, and then ship it overseas.
Television sets, computers and printers are shipped overseas from European ports like Hamburg and Rotterdam, mostly to African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana. There, they are often taken apart by children working with their bare hands. They burn off cable housings, for example, to extract copper wire -- breathing the toxic smoke in the process.
Exporting waste materials across international borders is banned under the Basel Convention of 1989, but few containers are inspected, and sometimes the problematic material is hidden behind rows of intact equipment. Law enforcement lacks the necessary time and personnel to conduct rigorous inspections, particularly as the ships usually spend only a few hours at the wharf.
Looking in Landfills
The recycling industry sees greater promise in developing a different, yet untapped supply of resources. Old landfills contain tons of treasures from the days when the concept of recycling was still largely unknown. Stefan Gäth, a waste and resource management expert at the University of Giessen in western Germany, estimates that household garbage dumps contain enough metallic raw materials to cover the entire German demand for a year.
Gäth and his team used an auger to drill about 20 meters (66 feet) into the interior of a decommissioned landfill in Hechingen, a town in southwestern Germany. The dump was in operation from 1982 to 2004. In addition to paper, plastic and glass, they found large amounts of metal: from soup spoons to entire electric drills.
The professor suspects that abandoned landfills contain about 30 million to 50 million worth of scrap material. The only catch, at least for now, is that the costs of extracting valuable waste from the landfills are higher than the expected revenues.
We still have a long way to go from the throwaway society to the recycling economy of the 21st century. Efficient collection procedures are needed. Even more importantly, consumers need to be made aware of the fact that electronic waste can be valuable. However, even the highest collection rate is no guarantee that the recycling industry will indeed filter out all metals from the garbage. There are limits, as the Umicore facility in Hoboken demonstrates.
Buyer Thierry Van Kerckhoven is standing in front of a protective shield, watching the shredded material fall into a furnace where the temperature is 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit). The molten material is constantly making hissing and crackling noises. "Sometimes the materials react somewhat aggressively," Kerckhoven explains.
First heat is used to separate the materials, and then chemistry is used to do the more detailed processing, which he doesn't want to discuss, citing trade secrets. He does admit, however, that the coveted rare earths are not part of the yield.
It is certainly technically feasible to recover these materials, too, says Kerckhoven. But it would involve an enormous additional cost, he adds. "Rare earths are still much too cheap for that."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from Business section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH