What's the deal with used electronics anyway?

Another interesting garbage-related story came to the attention of the Tokyo Anaba editorial team this week. (be sure to check our original post about recycling in Japan). The Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun reported on January 22 that JX Nippon Mining and Metals, a resources company based in Tokyo is in talks to form a joint venture in Canada to salvage metals from circuit boards of used electronics to ship to Japan.

That's right. There are not enough used electronics in Japan--a country practically buried in used electronics--to satiate the market's need for the valuable metal parts.

As we noted in our last post, a new law regulating the recycling of personal electronics and other "small appliances" goes into effect in April 2013. The aim of the new law is to promote the reuse of "metals and other useful materials" found in small electronic devices.

Takashi Fujii of Mizuho Information and Research Institute explains the reasoning for the updated law in a column from May 2012:

"When  small electronics (items other than TVs, refrigerators and freezers, washing machines and driers) are disposed they are either thrown away as non-burnable or oversized garbage. In the normal disposal process, only some materials like aluminum are recycled and many useful metals are put in landfills untreated."

One man's trash is another's treasure
According to the Nikkan Kogyo report, heavy competition in Japan and the economic downturn have made it more difficult to obtain these metals from used electronics in Japan (i.e., the amount of used phones and computers is dropping, believe it or not) and there are worries about being able to maintain current levels.

JX Nippon has already been salvaging raw materials from recycled goods in Taiwan for export to Japan since 2010. 

The newspaper also notes that leading companies in the non-ferrous metal industry are increasingly looking abroad for recycled materials. Mitsubishi Materials Corporation plans to expand collection of circuit boards from North America, Europe and Southeast Asia. 

It appears that e-waste scavenging, or parts recycling―call it what you will, is a growing global phenomenon which is profitable enough for large multinationals to jump into the fray. Companies like MMC use proprietary methods to extract the rare metals from circuit boards.

Are you telling me all the used computers don't get sent to China?
The current incarnation of the electronic waste wiki page states:
"Critics of trade in used electronics maintain that it is still too easy for brokers calling themselves recyclers to export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries, such as China, India and parts of Africa, thus avoiding the expense of removing items like bad cathode ray tubes (the processing of which is expensive and difficult). The developing countries have become toxic dump yards of e-waste."
This may no longer be the case. The Mail reported last year that the gold content in old mobile phone circuit boards is worth billions and a huge amount is untapped. If it turns out to be profitable to strip used electronics in one country and export halfway around the world just for processing, hopefully the "toxic dump yards of e-waste" will become a thing of the past. We'll see.

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