How Much Copper do you Have in Your Closet?

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Green, Non-ferrous Metals

We have written before about the growing phenomena of Urban Mining, a coming together of different trends such as metal scarcity and the green movement which could have ramifications for both consumers and producers. On the one hand, cities and states are trying to find solutions to the growing problem of what to do with obsolete electronics, particularly bulky items like TV’s, PC’s, printers, fax machines, etc. Throw them in a landfill and they become a source of potential pollution but to recycle them requires specialist equipment, skills and experience, not to mention the challenge of collecting them economically. If ever there was an opportunity for public and private enterprise to work together this has proved to be it. Maine, Oregon and some 16-17 other states have passed laws mandating recycling but more importantly creating free collection points for unwanted machines. States recognized that they had to make it free and easy to dispose of machines otherwise people would not do it. The EPA estimates over 99 million sets sit unused in closets and basements around the country according to the NY Times. Industry sources say this equates to over 320 million pounds of copper, not to mention over 200 million pounds of aluminum and various rarer metals found on the circuit boards. Then there are the PC’s, the fax machines, etc etc. Plus the return to be made from plastic and glass recycling.

States are also mandating producers design in a greater degree of recyclability but in the absence of a national standard this is proving an increasing burden for producers as every state has the potential to write different standards. Clearly federal action is required to take this forward. Discarded electronics represents a significant source of copper and rare earth metals that with the right technology could be recycled and to some extent reduce dependency on overseas supply.

The EPA estimates that 2.6m tons of electronic waste is lost in landfills every year resulting in a cost for the tax payer to operate, an environmental impact for this and subsequent generation.  It also represents a waste of natural resources that could be more efficiently used. At the moment the economics do not fully support this being left entirely in the private sector. Manufacturers say a reasonable rate for collection and processing of waste is 25 to 30 cents a pound. Still it is more than they say they can recoup from reselling the metals they harvest, particularly for televisions. So if it is agreed there is a wider benefit for the environment and society than some support, maybe in terms of running the collection points, by the state could be justified nationwide.

–Stuart Burns

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