April 14, 2009 7:34 am

One man’s trash is another man’s problem

GLOBAL – We recently wrote about some things we discovered about Nokia’s attitude towards spreading environmentally sensitive thinking across the company and suppliers. These discoveries were prompted by an article on a phone buy-back scheme we had highlighted and which was called out by some of our colleagues.

What ensued was a fascinating travel through the problems of e-waste and finding out why Nokia does not like to promote buy-back and reuse schemes. Below, we discuss some issues of e-waste and the reasons behind Nokia’s stance. We hope that it helps you understand a problem that is basically invisible to most of us in Europe and North America.

It’s so simple, right?
We’ve written a ton of articles about recycling efforts by Nokia, the spread of recycling centers all over the world, awareness programs, surveys, a poll, and even a video. One thing that comes up is that everyone says, “yo, why don’t you guys promote the REUSE of phones, reuse is better than recycle, isn’t it?”

We wondered the same thing. Why wasn’t Nokia supporting buy-back companies, charities or programs.

Well, turns out that it’s not that simple.

When it is past reuse
When a manufacturer takes in an electronic device for recycling, it is sent to a proper facility where workers are protected from any potential toxins, toxic components are handled safely, and all of the device is disassembled and properly processed. It is really the only way for a manufacturer to guarantee that a device at the end of its life is properly and safely recycled.

It is true that many devices are indeed reused, passed onto family, friends, or resold in the second-hand market. But the problem is when the device is beyond its life span. What Nokia finds is that many times buy-back schemes end up relocating the phone to a market that buys them as scrap material. More often than not, these are markets with no capacity to actually recycle the phone when it is through with it.

That’s not to say that buy-back schemes are bad, but they often end up shifting the disposal to the wrong place, places not prepared to deal with the end of life of a device in a safe way.

Not in our backyard, please
Such markets are well aware of this. Indeed, Nokia got slammed by Ghana when it was discovered that there were many Nokia devices in the nation’s dumps. The problem is that the phones did not get to Ghana through Nokia channels.

And this is not just a problem for Nokia and phone manufacturers, it is a problem for the whole electronics industry.

E-waste overview
E-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste, potentially tripling in volume over the next five years. The challenge is that almost 75-80 per cent of e-waste goes unaccounted for, some estimate up to 99 per cent. Some national regulatory bodies have tried to put a stop to e-waste. For example, e-waste export is banned in Europe. But the US has no regulation for e-waste export to non-OECD countries. And there is no way to track this stuff, so really no one knows for sure how bad the problem really is.

For the most part, e-waste gets shipped overseas as second-hand goods (a lot of which cannot be reused). This junk then gets sent to unregulated “backyard” operations set up to harvest precious metals (gold, copper, aluminum). In the process, burning and acid baths release highly toxic substances. This causes workplace, water, and soil contamination.

Actions being taken
While this is scary (to us, at least), there are actions that can be taken or are being taken. For example, exports of second-hand devices need to be tested to see if they are still suitable for reuse. Companies need to continue phasing-out toxic substances. Also, corporations need to continue to improve products’ designs, such as to improve disassembly and recycling. Facilities need to be established for effective and safe recycling in “hotspots,” such as in Ghana, India and China. And, clearly, there also needs to be increased tracking of products at the end of their life.

There are international cross-industry actions, such as the “Basel Convention on the Trans-Boundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal” in which Nokia participates via the Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative, established for the management of used and end-of-life mobile phones. Nokia also works with the European Commissioner for the Environment on integrated product policies, which minimize environmental impact of products through analysis of products’ life-cycles.

There is also a promising focus on the life of downstream materials, such as refurbished, reused, and recycled content. And with electronics producers forming partnerships with recycling companies, there’s a hope that this problem can come under some sort of control.

So, did you know all this?
All this opened our eyes, and we are now a bit wary of re-use programs that ship phones to Africa or China or such. We are starting to see that proper recycling via the manufacturer is indeed the safest and most environmentally sound way to dispose of old phones (and other electronics). Or at least, it is one that the manufacturer can be totally sure about. That is why Nokia has set up recycling take-back schemes in 85 countries.

What do you think? Has this changed your thoughts on recycling and reuse? Can we be more conscientious of reuse and make it work well? Should we be a bit stricter with well-meaning buy-back programs?

[Celia Peterson and Susan Smith, from Nokia’s environment communications team, contributed (heavily) to this article.]