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What happens to your old phone or laptop when you are finished using it?  While this may seem like an innocent question the real answer is much more haunting:

The sad reality is that the majority of old electronics used in developed countries end up being shipped to developing parts of the world, ~50 million metric tons to be exact.  Once the old electronics reach these areas, they are burned or put into acid baths to try to remove precious metals, plastics and components.  The people that work in these areas expose themselves to harmful chemicals and the environments are ruined by the non-valuable remains that are then dumped.

A 'silver' Lining?

In a situation where most people see despair, we discovered an opportunity.  While not at all flashy, 'E-Waste' has an intrinsic value that cannot be ignored. The negative consequences arise when this value is not extracted in a safe and sustainable way. We were not the first people to draw this conclusion, but we felt that many groups had gone wrong by establishing solutions that were too capital and space-intensive.  We found our solution in the most unlikely of places, shipping containers. Learn more about our solution in the video below.

Iteration 1

Our initial plan consisted of 3 main parts: 

  1. We would partner with corporations to collect their old electronics & bring them to a Metrecycle hub.
  2. Renovated shipping containers would be used as disassembly centers where workers would be paid to disassemble electronics in a controlled environment.
  3. The valuable components (precious metals, plastics, components) would be sold in bulk through separate channels & the remaining parts would be sent to recycling facilities. 
  Metrecycle Hub Concept.  Cost of a typical disassembly facility: ~$700,000.  Cost of a Metrecycle Hub: ~$60,000

Metrecycle Hub Concept.  Cost of a typical disassembly facility: ~$700,000.  Cost of a Metrecycle Hub: ~$60,000

Iteration 2

As we dug deeper in our research we learned that there were a few glaring holes in our first iteration. The first was in regards to how many people we could actually employ at a Metrecycle Hub & how these employees would reach our locations. Our solution was to take the disassembly stage to them.  We created a kit called a 'Metpack' which contained basic tools, safety equipment & picture-based manuals that would allow people to disassemble electronics from their homes.

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Hult prize

 The Metrecycle Squad at Hult Prize Regional finals in San Francisco.

The Metrecycle Squad at Hult Prize Regional finals in San Francisco.

At this point I want to take a quick detour to discuss the competition that really gave this project wings. The Hult Prize competition is an international business competition centered around social enterprise. Each year teams from around the world create ideas centered around a challenge topic for a chance at 1 million USD to put towards their venture. In 2016 the challenge was creating social enterprises that could double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces. Our team went on to win the UW-Madison Hult Prize @ UW-Madison round and then headed to San Francisco to compete in the Regional finals.

Results  

Unfortunately our experience with Metrecycle left us with more questions than answers in regards to the E-Waste problem. While many people in high places (including Microsoft's Chief Environmental Officer) were keen on helping us out, every step we took seemed to reveal further problems and corruption. What we discovered was a worldwide issue that resulted from a chain of corruption so deep and pervasive that it could not be solved without large amounts of capital, legal backing and government compliance.

I could write an entire essay on the current problems with E-Waste and why Metrecycle didn't work out, but I tried to summarize the main problems as best I can:

  • It is hard to get your hands on the valuable E-Waste: Certain types of E-Waste are more valuable than others.  So corporations (like Apple) collect the high-value waste, like iPhones, and leave behind the low-value waste that is costly to recycle.
  • Precious Metals & Plastics are down: The value of precious metals and plastics are at a 6 year low.  With margins so thin to begin with, Metrecycle could not survive these low fluctuations in commodity prices.  At these low points many of the items contained parts that were more costly to recycle than the amount of revenue we could receive from selling valuable parts.
  • Corruption, corruption, corruption: Basically there is corruption and irresponsibility at all levels. Large corporations manufacture electronics that they know are harmful for the environment and then avoid responsibility for them once they've been sold. Uninformed consumers will toss electronics into regular garbage bins or donate to organizations that pose as recycling companies, but really sell their waste to developing areas where it is sold on black markets.  A big debate right now is the idea of polluter pays vs consumer pays principles.  The debate is focused around whether companies should have to pay to clean up after products they manufacturer them, or if consumers should pay a higher price for products and have a fee for environmental impact built in to the price.
  • Regulations: The most frustrating problem & the one that ultimately killed Metrecycle, was the amount of compliance and regulation required to set up a disassembly facility.  Corporations will only work with groups who have certain certifications (which are costly and completely artificial).  It's funny because these corporations only decide to start acting responsible at the point when it would actually be beneficial to not regulate so tightly.  They are worried about a third-world worker being hurt trying to disassemble a computer off the street, but completely ignore the fact that they are manufacturing millions of tons of harmful electronic waste every year (shots fired).

What can you do?

I'm not going to sugar coat the E-Waste situation at all; it is extremely serious issue that is only getting worse by the year. However, there are some basic things that YOU can do to make sure that your phone or laptop don't end up across the world in someone's backyard.