Science, Tech & Environment

A Bicycle-Powered Recycling System for Electronic Waste

Electronic, or e-waste, is quickly becoming a global scourge. Tens of millions of tons of it ends up being exported, often illegally, to countries in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa. These countries often don't have the capacity to properly recycle it. And that means in places like Ghana, for example, you often see teenagers and young adults burning computer wires in order to get at the valuable copper within. That burning creates a host of health and environmental problems.

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But now, one design school graduate in Britain has decided to try to tackle the problems of burning copper wire. He's created a bike-powered recycling system called Esource. The World's Clark Boyd writes about this in his latest column for the BBC Future website.

efore you snap up the new iPhone 5, a new Kindle or one of the shiny new Nokia handsets, consider the probable fate of the gadget they will replace.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that tens of millions of tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, are generated around the world each year. Yet, only about 10% of that is properly recycled, according to the agency. A good proportion of the rest, according the UK-based Electronic Investigation Agency (EIA), ends up being "illegally exported and dumped in developing countries." These countries, notes a 2011 report from EIA, simply don't have the capacity to properly recycle this kind of waste.

But that doesn't stop people from trying.

That's because the waste contains tiny, yet valuable, amounts of gold and copper. In fact, in a country such as Ghana, burning computer wires to reclaim the copper is, unfortunately, one of the better-paying jobs a teenager or 20-something can land.

A local businessman hands over the wires to the kids, who take the material to a place like the Agbogbloshie dump near Accra. They set it alight, wait for the plastic coatings to burn off, and then take the copper back to the businessman. Most of that copper is eventually sold to manufacturers in Western Europe, completing a grim kind of recycling.

It comes at great cost to the young kids, and to the environment. As EIA says: "Copper wires are bundled and set alight to remove flame-resistant coatings, emitting toxic dioxins…The potential health consequences for those involved in this kind of work are dire - reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune, nervous and blood systems, kidney damage and impaired brain development in children."

The economic reality of the situation is that most of the teams of recyclers are going to carry on what they are doing, no matter what the potential consequences. So, what is needed is a cleaner, healthier way to mine the waste for its valuable elements.

Gold mine

And that is precisely what Hal Watts decided to do as part of his design degree at London's Royal College of Art. He has spent the last year designing and building a device he hopes will not only offer a viable alternative to burning the wires, but may even net the youngsters who do the dirty work more money.

Watts calls his invention Esource, and it is a wonder of simplicity that he dreamed up after witnessing first-hand the dire working conditions at the Agbogbloshie dump for himself. Watts tells me that he knew he had to create "a system that's as cheap as possible, and that didn't require much infrastructure".

The first challenge was finding a cheap and reliable power source. He knew no one would want to pay the ongoing costs of running, say, a generator that powered some wire-stripping machine. He looked around, and then it hit him. "Everyone out there has a bicycle."

The bike powers two different machines that help separate the copper from the plastic coating. First, you use a shredder that Watts specifically designed using materials available in local workshops. You feed the plastic-coated copper wires into the shredder, and the bits get ground up, smaller and smaller, until they fall through a sieve at the bottom. "That," says Watts, "guarantees that the copper and plastic are no longer stuck together."

Then, you use a second machine, which Watts says was inspired by gold-panning technologies. "It has a rotating wheel with water being pumped around it," says Watts. As you pedal, water is pumped into the spinning wheel. Then you put the small bits of copper and plastic into it. The different weights of the particles, driven by the spiral, mean that "the plastic washes out, and you're left with a pile of copper."

The issue, Watts admits, is throughput. The kids normally get through about 65 lbs (30kg) pounds of wire a day through burning. And, as it stands, it would be hard for them to get through that amount as quickly with Esource.

"The process is limited by the shredder," says Watts. "It takes a lot of energy to shred. In testing, I got to where you could do about 11 pounds (5kg) of wire in an hour." Watts says that's not bad considering that "an industrial machine that could handle 220 pounds (100kg) in an hour would cost more than $50,000." In contrast, Watts says he can put together his bicycle powered system for around $120.

But the low cost of the device isn't the only selling point. When you burn the wires, Watts says, you end up with bits of plastic melted onto the valuable copper. But with Esource, the copper comes out much cleaner. And clean copper, Watts notes, is worth about 20% more on the market. For exporters in Ghana, who can go through up to 110 tonnes (250,000Lbs) of copper a week, that's a lot of money. And so moving forward, Watts hopes he can make a strong economic argument to exporters to invest in the Esource system.

He also hopes to convince the young people doing the work, many of whom can make up to $15 a day, that Esource is worth it. These kids, he notes, often work in groups to burn the wires. He's hoping that instead they will pool their money, buy into an Esource set-up that they can share, and then recoup their initial expenditure through the increased value of the cleaner copper they give back to the exporters.

Watts will soon get the chance to make his case. His Esource idea recently won a grant from The Wates Foundation to further develop his designs over the next six months. He'll be returning to Ghana in October. He has also released a freely available manual for building an Esource system, complete with ideas for different materials that might be substituted in the original design.

"I don't think there will ever be a business for me personally in making and selling the machines," Watts admits. "For me, the incentive was to make it open source, and have it produced locally where it's needed. I designed it so that it could be made entirely in country."

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