Thursday, June 16, 2011

Elegant technology--waste processing

When I wrote Elegant Technology, getting a handle of the global waste stream seemed almost impossible.  Every day, I could see more things becoming "disposable" as in "too much trouble to either maintain or recycle."  Even recycling looked like a lost cause because the energy involved in collecting and reprocessing something like waste glass was so high.

So even though the one-way trip of resources from mines to landfills was by definition unsustainable, coming up with a viable alternative seemed hopeless.  Of course, what was needed was the sort of inventiveness seen regularly in manufacturing applied to waste reprocessing.

A conversion from linear industrialization to a closed-loop alternative pretty much defined Elegant Technology.  A technology is "elegant" if it accounts for all the externalities including waste disposal.  From Chapter Ten: Do Producers have a Plan? (Pages 117-118 of the Elegant Technology pdf online)
In many ways, industrialization has applied the principles of the second law of thermodynamics to everything. From the mines to the junkyards, the materials become less concentrated, more jumbled up with other materials, and spread far and wide over the face of the planet. If energy cannot be destroyed, no material can be destroyed. When an industrial product is thrown away, it only disappears from a common line of sight because in truth, there is no away.

Linear industrialization creates problems at both ends of the industrial process. High-quality resources are being depleted at one end of the process and waste products are piling up at the other. Every industrial problem of importance is a problem either of resources or waste.

What is worse, the economic systems in industrial countries put a clock on the time it takes for a resource to become waste. Gross National Product (G.N.P.) is a measure of how fast natural resources become waste. At the very time when industrialization is confronting the problem of resource limitations and waste disposal, the economists are proposing solutions that only accelerate this process. This will only serve to make the problems worse.

The solution is obvious. The waste outflow must be converted into a resource asset. Sometimes this process is called recycling—a term that should be deliberately avoided because it conjures up pictures of Boy Scouts on newspaper drives. Newspaper drives may be a perfectly fine thing for children who must learn the concepts of waste management, but recycling on that scale is not a win situation from an environmental standpoint when the burning of fuel in the scoutleader’s station wagon is factored in. The ugly truth is that after fifteen years of recycling talk in the United States, the most effective recycling mechanism is the garage sale. Converting the wastes of industrialization into industrial assets is a problem far beyond the grasp of the Boy Scouts or garage sales.

Closing the industrial loop is a project of similar magnitude to the industrial revolution. Undoing the damage is an even bigger problem than industrialization. About one-third of the world’s population has been beavering away at the creation of the industrial infrastructure of the planet for the last 150 years with occasional setbacks from warfare. A problem larger than that should mean one thing: unemployment will cease if the resource-to-waste loop is closed because there is plenty of work that needs to be done—so much work, in fact, that it boggles the imagination. more
So it is with some joy I read that a company in Belgium has now come up with a higher-tech version of waste reprocessing for electronic junk.

Treasure from the Trash
'Urban Mining' Could Reduce Reliance on Metal Imports
By Alexander Jung   06/15/2011 
The demand for special metals used in the manufacture of electronics is booming, but a few countries control much of the world's supply. Germany is looking to reduce its reliance on imports by exploiting the metal that is thrown away in trash. Urban mining could become big business. 
Thierry Van Kerckhoven has an eye for hidden value. The Belgian can look at a pile of shredded scrap metal from electronic devices and recognize what it is made of. Not only that, he can tell how much it's worth.
Kerckhoven works as a buyer of such waste in the world's largest recycling facility for complex precious metals in Hoboken, a section of the Belgian city of Antwerp. The Umicore Group owns the facility, where deliveries are stored in individual concrete bays. Kerckhoven removes his sunglasses and surveys his treasures.
New recycling bins in Berlin
for electronic waste
The powdery and shiny material in Box 2051 on the far left, Kerckhoven explains, used to be printed circuit boards and monitors. The copper in the mixture produces the brown color and the glass makes it shimmer. Kerckhoven can detect the remnants of SIM cards in a pile of colorful bits of plastic in the next bay. He pulls out a handful and points to the word "Vivo," a Brazilian mobile communications company.
"Probably excess production," he says, explaining that this is why the material ended up in the landfill. Useless for Vivo, it becomes a valuable resource for Umicore. There are about 100 grams of gold, valued at about €3,400 ($5,000), in each ton of waste in this box. By comparison, a ton of ore from a gold mine often contains no more than 5 grams of the precious metal. When it comes to yield, the recycling plant in Hoboken far outperforms any mine in the world.
But the 16 other metals that Umicore extracts at this facility are at least as sought after as gold. They include gallium, a key ingredient in solar cells, and rhodium, which is used in catalytic converters, and of which Umicore produces four tons a year, or one-fifth of the global demand.
Dangerous Bottlenecks
Such raw materials are scarce and coveted, and have become more and more expensive over the years. The industry, warning of dangerous bottlenecks, is searching for new sources. One solution could come from the garbage can. What was simply waste in the past is suddenly being upgraded to a valuable resource.
If electronic waste were systematically recycled, companies could at least partially cover their demand for important metals on their own in the future. Then manufacturing countries would no longer be as dependent on producing countries like Australia, Brazil and China, the key suppliers of the metals known as rare earths. These sought-after special metals, with names like dysprosium and neodymium, are essential in the manufacture of high-tech products.
Until now, however, the potential for the extraction of rare earths from recycled materials was largely unexploited. While Germany achieves recycling rates upwards of 80 percent for glass and paper, the majority of electronic devices are lost as sources of raw materials. Electric shavers, hair dryers and toasters gather dust in cabinets and drawers or, as is more often the case, are simply thrown in the general trash and end up in waste incinerators.
There, veritable treasures literally go up in smoke. For example, for every ton of mobile phones, or about 10,000 units, that are disposed of in an incinerator, 150 kilograms of copper, 5 kilograms of silver and about 100 grams of palladium are lost. more


  1. Thanks for this very informative posts about the metals and plastics in our trash. Something else that's related to your post is this video I saw on the Greenopolis video channel.

  2. Thanks Sandy

    Cute video. The last time I was in Sweden I lived in a condo that had 7 recycling systems--which gives you some idea of how serious the Swedes are about recycling.

    Getting things into the right bin is only a start. Knowing how to do something useful with what has been collected is the hard part.

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  4. Thanks for this informative post. In case you haven't heard, Recyclebank has just teamed up with Greenopolis! Now you can earn both Recyclebank and Greenopolis points everytime you recycle. Check out this video-- I learned about the news here.

  5. Thanks for the awesome blog post, really appreciate it!

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.
    Garbage Carting NYC