Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Huge Opportunity in Cleaning Up Electronic Waste

Go on Google and type in "electronic waste" and one of the options that it offers is "electronic waste and India." The reason for this, of course, is familiar to anyone who reads the newspapers or watches television - third world countries like India have become dumping grounds for electronic waste of all kinds. The problems that electronic waste causes are many - there are numbers of toxic metals that are involved in addition to plastics which are also a problem. SOme estimates from the USA suggest that electronic waste accounts of 40% of the lead and 75% of the heavy metals found in landfills. Of course, there are fears of this leaching into ground water and of it contaminating the soil around the landfills.

But, where there are problems, there are always opportunities. A section of scientists and engineers have come to regard these landfills not as waste disposal sites but as "mines" from which metals that have value may be extracted. Look at it this way - the older 286 and 396 computers have huge amounts of gold and silver in them. So do a lot of older electronic products. At the moment, metal prices, like all commodity prices, are down because of the current global recession. But they will soon be up again and the requirement for these metals is not going away anytime soon. That leaves a huge opportunity in recycling electronic waste. A collection system that takes care of new waste is one part of this. A "mining' effort that recovers e-waste from landfills is another.

Some companies are jumping in on extracting this waste and separating it for processors to take and separate. And advanced businesses like Umicore in Belgium are at the forefront of processing the metals recovered, separating them and offering them in pure form for reuse in industry. From some brief interaction with Umicore in the past, I know that the Chinese and the Japanese send them e-waste for reprocessing all the time. I was personally responsible for introducing one Japanese trader to Umicore. But, no Indian company really bothers to do anything in this area, unfortunately. I knew that CMC (now a part of the Tata empire) had a number of old mainframes at one time and that they were losing money paying for warehousing space to hold this junk in India. When I approached them at the time asking if they would sell any of these to me for scrap value, there was no response at all. Hopefully, with the recession and the corresponding need for them to make more money as revenues from software and services dries up, Indian companies would look at this potentially lucrative business. Mark my words - there's gold in that junk.

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