End of the Line

There are a couple of problems every e-waste recycler faces.

Where to source recyleable materials? How to process things safely? What happens to the bits? Every recycler passes on the bits to specialists - whether it's paper, circuit boards, glass... unless they have the specialized mechanisms in place to turn waste into a new product themselves.

When you're at the end of a product's lifecycle, you're very much aware of what it's made of. It's amazing how many small screws, bits of glass or plastic, unexpected circuit boards and other paraphanalia turn up in absolutely everything!

Here in South Africa, recycling is still a relatively new field. E-waste recycling even more so. Where some overseas countries have the regulations, the processes, the support all in place, here we struggle on with dead ends and red tape, certain items piling up unwanted, others simply becoming uneconomical to work with.

The biggest problem most of us face is Plastic. Specifically ABS plastic. In the Western Cape there are 2 companies that say they can process this - but unfortunately both of them currently don't. There used to be an organization that creatively turned this plastic into roof tiles - but then closed. And us e-waste processors have had to make other plans.

But what happens when you reach the end of the line - no more places available to take ABS and turn it into something else, you certainly can't do so yourself, and it just starts piling up?

Overseas, yet again the innovation is flowing.

This guy mixed chopped up plastic with cement to make concrete. There's a company that makes similar products and calls them PlasCrete.

But here in SA? Nope. No-one who has the machinery to process bigger bits into smaller bits is remotely interested in giving it a shot. The government is trying to build houses en mass - why wouldn't a product like this appeal to them? Or to anyone in these tough times wanting to build a strong, lighter-than-plain-concrete structure?

The same company that make PlasCrete have also turned ABS into pothole filler. We all know Africa is FULL of huge holes in the road - this is the perfect stuff to throw into them! But no, again no-one seems to want to dip their toes into the innovation pool and try something new.

Then there's the plastic-to-fuel folk. Way-out idea, sure, but hey - it apparently works. And with the entire planet running out of oil in the not too distant future, it's definitely worth a second look.

The great thing with these options is that plastic does not have to be as thoroughly cleaned as traditionally required when recycling it. If there are bits of metal (screws, supports, springs etc) that you missed left mixed in with the plastic, it doesn't matter. If there is a label or a piece of paper, also OK. It doesn't take the intense human effort and manpower to sort out or clean - it's simply chop and go. Things like PlasCrete don't even require any extra equipment to mix or make - it's the same process as adding aggregate before forming the end product.

As an e-waste recycler it's incredibly frustrating that no-one in South Africa has taken up this torch and run with it. There is a HUGE need for ABS and "other" plastics to be turned into something else, to be recycled instead of going discarded or unused.

If only someone would step up and do it.

Make 'n Break

One can only sit breaking stuff for so long before the brain starts to kick in - "what can I re-use this for, what can I make from this?"

Lately I've been inspired. I've been looking at the e-waste I process with new eyes and coming up with all sorts of things to do with it. Granted, there's a lot of junk. But there are some items or parts of items that make me do a double take and say "hang on.... this would work perfectly as..."

And there go my creative juices once more.

With all these projects being attempted and completed, Virgin Earth will soon have a "Shop" page with some of them for sale to help fund the (still/always) free e-waste recycling service we offer.

It's the ultimate in recycling - new, cool goods from old.

Moral Dilemmas

I sat down and watched this this morning. It documents where the tin that ends up on computer boards comes from - and lists the cost in human life.

Now it's really easy for me to distance myself from the miners in the Congo and say "not my problem". Their labours yield something that travels far to get to initial manufacturer, further to get to the folk that put things together, and further to reach me. Much, much further down the line those goods end up on my workbench for recycling - years away from when it all started.

Yet I can't help but feel that I should be doing something, making some sort of noise to stand up for these people's rights and ease their situation. I know one small (female, white) voice in the sea of African turmoil is not going to do a thing to stem the tide. If I were to turn up there in person, I'd probably be killed.

I can't boycott the producers. I'm that small a fish in the sea that it's not going to even register on their radars.

I want to help, but there's nothing I can think of to do.... and that's my moral dilemma. I'm working with and in an industry that is (un)knowingly exploiting human life to maintain momentum. I depend on the IT industry for my livelihood.

Perhaps the regulations to change over from lead to tin in manufacturing started as good intentions - but they've had trickle-down effects that may simply have never been imagined. And it's snowballed to way beyond controllable levels. It's only going to end when the raw materials run out.

So can I do anything at all? Or is it futile?

Maybe the little I do to recycle old electronics is what I am meant to contribute. Keeping those elements out of the landfills, making them available for re-use instead of digging out new metals may just help save on the scale of exploitation down the line. Both human and natural.


Everything needs a market. Even recycling. You'd think that once you dump something in a recycling container it magically transforms into a clean, green, back-to-nature product... or melts away.

Unfortunately it's not like that.

Recycling other people's waste is a dirty, dusty, sticky, somewhat dangerous affair. Each element separated out is passed on to a processor or someone else who further works it beyond what you can.

And when the market for elements drops, there's problems.

The Times has the details - when demand for these falls, things pile up. Where once you had recycled items moving smoothly from consumer to recycler to processor / re-manufacturer, recycling centres start to look worse than the problem they're trying to solve.

It's a huge issue world-wide. Not only has demand for certain elements fallen, but the bottom has crashed out of the commodities market. A recycler who was previously being paid a buck for a kilo of steel is now being paid a quarter of that. Name a metal, and it's the same story. Plastics, glass, everything is bottoming out.

Costs of collection and processing haven't fallen though.

So everyone waits. Sorted waste piles up, empty spaces are found for more - and we wait. For better days, for better prices - and hope we don't have to flog everything at a gigantic loss simply to clear the floor again.

Now comes the hard part

In the world of processing e-waste, there are some parts that are easier than others.

Joyfully taking out your frustrations on the glass of a broken monitor to reduce it to dust could be construed as an easy job. Provided you wear protective clothing and duck should shards head your way.

Taking apart a beautiful old machine or expensive server is heartbreaking.

Working through 30 identical screens in a row is exhausting.

And now and then one aspect ends up downright shocking.

My partner usually deals with the metal disposal aspect of this endeavour on my behalf - sometimes a male presence in a male-dominated world is a lot more effective. But I recently joined him on a trip to the scrapyard to take steel for recycling.

Perhaps I'm too soft-hearted - maybe I simply "humanize" the machines that cross my workbench each day. What I do know is that I treat those I dismantle with respect and a healthy dose of reverence. I don't break it if I don't have to - bar those stress-relieving screens of course... :-)

But the trip to the metal guys shook me. There it's all just scrap, discards, junk, things to throw on a pile of other things. The carefully packed goods we bring are dumped unceremoniously into a corner or out on the ground. I know it's destined for a smelter eventually, that it will be ground up and re-used for other items, but sometimes it's hard to see just how casually this beautifully crafted technology at end-of-life is treated.

I guess that's the emotionally-draining flip side of "doing good deeds" and saving it from a landfill.


I was sitting looking at my hands a few days ago.

I used to have beautiful hands - soft, long-fingered, perfectly manicured nails, though they occasionally got dirty in gardening and engines.

Now my hands are well-used. Processing e-waste isn't a clean job. You end up filthy, blackened by soot and grime and dust. Sharp metal, plastic, glass can cut into skin. Tools slip - and leave their mark. Nails break. Your fingerprints end up permanently defined in black and grey on your fingertips - no matter how much you scrub. You're likly to have an assortment of plasters at various angles over hands and wrists. You have callouses and blisters and pinched bits - the skin may be dried out and rough, not as sensitive as it used to be.

But these hands are hard-working hands. They've done a lot. They know how to work carefully and delicately, or take a bit of force to something that needs it. They're not simply attachments to the end of my arms. They're useful parts of me. They fit into the cycle of electronic life and death I assist in - they resurrect or forever destroy.

Yup, may not be able to show them off nor want to attract attention to them with snazzy nailpolish (which will simply be eaten off at the next session). But I'm kinda pround of what they've done, what they're doing - what they still will do.

In the Still of the Night

Some days e-waste processing slows to a trickle and the workspace stands clear of equipment. Other days you simply can't keep up, and end up tripping over piles of stuff while more flows in the door! There are complicated things that take ages to dismantle instead of the simple "everything the same" items. Bolts and screws that refuse to budge, things you can't seem to decipher as to how they work.

And it's on the busy days that you might find yourself burning the midnight (and beyond) oil - trying to diminish the load of goods awaiting your attention before the next lot arrives.

Although getting to bed at 4 day after day can knock you for a six, I sometimes find those late night, early morning hours are my most productive. It's quiet - the rest of the world slumbers peacefully (oh how sometimes I'd love to join them!). There's no ringing phones or work-hour deadlines during which to contact people or be contacted. There's no need for coffee breaks or meal breaks - I can pace myself with the rhythm I work well at, budget my time and tasks and move smoothly from one to another.

If it's a really late one, I can tell the time by the passing train (2am - freight train inbound). I hear owls outside and the occasional startled guinea-fowl - all noises that get lost in the daily traffic and bustle of a working environment.

Yes, sometimes your movements become automatic - one screw after another, one panel after another, pile up like items and tackle them without really noticing what you're doing, keep eyes open (don't even blink or you'll fall asleep standing). But it's also the perfect time to think, to plan, to ponder: a bit of me-time under the late-burning lights.

Even if it sometimes exhausts me, I don't mind working late. It's a lot less of a chore than it seems, with benefits well worth the effort.