The shift of obsolete scrap from a cost burden to an opportunity may be permanent, but the electronics recycling stream of the future makes that uncertain.
Obsolete electronics are just as likely to be referred to as “e-waste” as they are “e-scrap,” but one keynote speaker and panelist at Electronics Recycling Asia, held in mid-November 2013 in Singapore, pointed to the increased value of this stream as an important change during his career.
Klaus Hieronymi, who has global resource efficiency and circular economy strategy responsibilities with Hewlett-Packard (HP), said the increasing value of electronic scrap has been made clear to him in that role.
“In 2002 or 2003, HP was probably paying from €200 to €300 ($147 to $220) per ton to get involved with handling e-scrap,” he commented. “Today, in Germany, we are receiving about €30 per ton.”
Hieronymi said the tipping point from liability to asset started to be reached around 2005 or 2006. He said in his years with HP, “this is the most dramatic change—that e-waste has value.” He added, “HP has asked me to understand the role of OEMs in a world where obsolete electronics have value.”
One of Hieronymi’s fellow panelists, Linda Li of Hong Kong-based electronics recycler Li Tong Group, warned that the obsolete scrap stream is changing rapidly and another shift in value is plausible in the future. Regarding tablets and mobile devices in particular, Li said the “rapid industry clock speed results in new devices every [financial] quarter.”
These new devices will quickly begin comprising part of the e-scrap stream. “We need to start looking at these new small in size but high in value devices,” said Li, including considering recycling aspects in the prototype and design stage.
Hieronymi noted that where e-scrap will be harvested in the future is changing. Individual consumers can now “do much more with an 80-gram (three-ounce) smartphone than they used to be able to do with 25-kilogram (55-pound) desktop computers,” Hieronymi stated.
Meanwhile, server farms hosted by companies such as Google and Amazon are growing steadily. “These guys own perhaps thousands of tons of servers with precious metals and other resources that will have value to recyclers,” he commented.
Electronics Recycling Asia 2013 was Nov. 12-15 at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore.