Taking a different view of recycling

Author Adam Minter highlights how looking at how other countries extend the useful life of products can serve as inspiration for a true circular economy in the U.S. and around the world.

The third day of WasteExpo Together Online opened with a keynote discussion between author and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Adam Minter and Waste360 Content & Marketing Director Liz Bothwell, who served as the moderator.

Minter wrote the 2013 best-seller, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade. He followed this up with his most recent book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale in 2019.

Minter’s presentation, Stuff: The Hidden Borderland of Waste and Recycling, highlights the journey materials take throughout the waste stream.

Minter tells the tale of how in the early 2000s when he was working as a reporter focused on the recycling industry, he got the idea to write a book pertaining to how everyday items become valuable through recycling. The first item that caught his attention when touring a scrap yard was Christmas lights. After working to investigate where this material comes from and who recycles it, Minter ended up in China at a place that specializes in deriving value from these materials.

As part of his presentation, Minter showed video from a Chinese facility that has a dedicated system for Christmas light recycling. As part of this operation, workers load bundles of lights imported in from the U.S. into a shredder along with water to cool the system. The resulting mix of plastic, glass and copper is run through a water table where the copper is segregated from the rest of the lighter material and able to be harvested by shovel to recover its value. This copper is then sold back to Christmas light manufacturers. The plastic, Minter says, is also recovered and sent to a local slipper sole manufacturer who uses it in its operations. The wastewater from the shredders was able to be reused on-site.

Minter says this process exemplifies a real-life example of the circular economy at work. The problem, he notes, is that thanks to a confluence of factors in China that culminated in the National Sword import ban, the varied markets that use to be available for U.S. recyclables (even with specialty items like Christmas lights) have dried up.

His takeaway is that the way in which we manage waste needs to change.

“I think we’ve all learned over the last couple of years that recycling is important, essential to environmental stewardship and to our waste management regimes, but it is not in and of itself sufficient to take care of the issue of [our waste],” Minter says.

The solution, according to Minter, lies in the way we think about repurposing materials. Minter uses the example of Good Point Recycling, an electrics recycler in Middlebury, Vermont, that sends computers, monitors and other electronics to Ghana.  

There, these recycled electronics are either fixed if needed or sold outright across the country.

“Just like folks everywhere, folks in Ghana want to get onto the information superhighway,” Minter says. “[This is stuff] that has not been imported to be burned, it’s been imported to be reused and because it can be used cheaper and because it has been massively pretested so it will last long. If it has been sitting in an American’s living room for five years, it is probably a pretty good computer.”

Minter also notes that there are businesses in Ghana where computers that are no longer functional are stored, and when someone comes in with a computer with a broken monitor, for example, these older computers can be parted out to fix the issue.

“Most of the computers on these shelves would be recyclables, or tossables, where they’d be tossed into people’s garbage or into the landfill. And we know that still goes on, but in Ghana in particular, this is valuable inventory. It’s a means of ensuring stuff lasts longer,” he says.

He says that laptops that might be only used for a few years in the U.S. can have a 10- to 15-year shelf life in Ghana because of the value of their parts.  

Minter also recounts how television repair pros in Ghana can take decades-old TVs and repair them to give them a second life. The key is having the parts to repair these systems, which can be difficult with older models.  

Embracing the value of the parts in recycled electronics is something that Good Point Recycling’s owner Robin Ingenthron has taken to heart. Minter says workers at Good Point have become adept at salvaging parts from discarded electronics. These parts are then sold on eBay for healthy profits.

“We don’t just need to learn from the most advanced recycling systems,” Minter says. “In many cases, what we really need to be doing is to be learning from and rethinking what’s going on in emerging markets because, in many ways, they’re ahead of us when it comes to what it means to have a circular economy.”

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