How We Think about E-Waste Is in Need of Repair

China and Ghana are looking less and less like electronic wastebaskets and more and more like leaders in a powerful, informal green economy

From its crowded streets, Hauqiangbei, looks like any other crowded Chinese shopping district, packed with streetside malls, snack vendors, and people in a sharp-elbowed hurry. But if you slip into any of these malls, it quickly becomes apparent that Huaqiangbei, located in the heart of Shenzhen, China’s electronics design and manufacturing hub, is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

SEG Plaza, at the heart of the Huaqiangbei District, doesn’t look like a paragon of green innovation when you walk into it. The main floor is packed with kiosks and stalls selling a riot of the sorts of things you find only inside your computers: cables, RAM, CPUs, and fans. They’re spooled, hung, and displayed in cases, looking not unlike a high-end butcher shop that might specialize in snakes and other coiled objects. Look up, and you’ll see nearly ten floors of similar vendors selling similar wares.

Who bothers coming here? The city’s engineers and product designers in search of the pieces and parts necessary that can help them build tomorrow’s—or today’s—electronics. Need an Intel 486 CPU from the early 1990s? Someone at SEG Plaza can get it for you in bulk. Want the motherboard from a 2002 vintage Dell laptop? The man selling Dell motherboards will ask how many you need for tomorrow.

Where does it all come from? In years past, much of the hardware in Huaqiangbei was imported from developed countries such as the United States, disassembled in infamously unsafe workshops elsewhere in South China, and then funneled into Huaqiangbei. It’s a trade that was widely misunderstood and that has saddled China with a reputation as the world’s electronic wastebasket. But the reality has long been far more complicated.

Huaqiangbei just kind of happened,
an inadvertent and hidden model for what a sustainable electronics industry might look like.

Huaqiangbei electronics market. Photos ©Tom Whitwell

On a recent trip at the end of May, I stopped by one kiosk with what looked like some older processors. “Where’d they come from?” I asked. The woman behind the counter told me they were reclaimed from PCs used in Internet cafes. That’s potentially a lot of PCs: China is home to over 140,000 Internet cafes, and their numbers are growing.

Though it’s little noted outside China, these used parts are critical to the market’s—and the global electronics industry’s—operations. They turn up in unexpected places. In 2012, a US Senate Armed Services Committee investigation found at least 1,800 cases of used parts from China reappearing in US Navy hardware—in cargo planes, spy planes, and special operations helicopters. More commonly, used electronics components show up in children’s toys, digital signs, and low-cost mobile phones.

Is that a problem? It is if you’ve been defrauded into thinking you’ve just bought a new product and in fact you’ve bought one made with old parts.

But from another perspective, Huaqiangbei is the green economy made real. According to Apple, 84 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the iPhone 6s is related to manufacture of the phone—only 10 percent comes from usage. “This makes product lifetime the key determinant of overall environmental impact,” explains a 2015 report from the Green Alliance, a UK environmental think tank. “A device that lasts longer spreads its manufacturing impacts over a longer time period.” It’s not just carbon, either. Re-use markets ease the demand for cobalt and other materials, the mining of which is often harmful to human health and the environment.

Huaqiangbei has helped China do that for years. No regulations were needed to establish it. Huaqiangbei just kind of happened, an inadvertent and hidden model for what a sustainable electronics industry might just look like.

The afterlife of our gadgets follows neither a straight path nor a simple narrative. These days, a majority of the world’s e-waste is generated in developing countries such as China, which lack advanced technology to recycle it safely.

But even if the advanced technology existed in developing economies, it likely wouldn’t be utilized at the moment. Thanks to the economic slowdown in China, prices for the commodities recycled from old gadgets are at multiyear lows, hurting the bottom line of recyclers around the world. A decade ago, desktop PCs and monitors contained several pounds of steel, plastic, copper, and precious metals. Today’s super-thin products, much beloved by consumers, not only contain far fewer of these commodities but also are extremely difficult to recycle. As a consequence, the sustainable, environmentally sound electronics recycling industry is in crisis.

One solution is to skip over the high costs of recycling and simply subsidize it. Japan has one of the most successful subsidized recycling programs in the world, but they struggle to collect gadgets from citizens. Even if they could collect 100 percent of the gadgets, they’d run into a different problem. Not everything is recyclable, even with the best technology—and more often than not, recyclers are left to clean up the mess.

The intense media coverage of e-waste dumping in West Africa might lead one to believe that all those gadgets are bound for toxic waste heaps.
But there’s actually very little documentary support for that common narrative.

1) Chargers collected using a monitor as a bucket; 2) Street side electronic repairs, Accra. Photos ©Fairphone

So in the early 1980s, recyclers in developed countries began sending PCs and other electronics abroad to places such as China. Few actually understood or cared why importers in China would pay to take the troublesome materials off their hands. But then, as now, the market driver was re-use. In circa-1985 China, for example, a used IBM PC wasn’t something to trash; it was something to be used and re-used, and those early “e-waste” imports gave many Chinese students and scientists their first access to computing technology.

Eventually, of course, that technology broke or became obsolete. But rather than trash old computers outright, savvy Chinese businesspeople would mine them for re-usable components that could be resold as parts. That which couldn’t be re-used was recycled—oftentimes in ugly, environmentally unsound circumstances.

In the early 2000s, environmental and media organizations outside China “discovered” these unsafe recycling operations and published several influential reports that turned them into international environmental causes. Yet few, if any, of those reports actually went to the trouble of explaining—much less understanding—that the digital wastelands were the starting point of a repair and refurbishment process that wasn’t happening in more developed countries. They also failed to understand that far from collaborating in “dumping” old technology on China, technology-hungry buyers in China were actually competing for the materials. According to my sources in Guiyu, China’s most notorious e-waste processing zone, around 80 percent of the revenues earned from “dumped” e-waste comes from re-use.

As China has become wealthier and started throwing out its own gadgets, the demand for used foreign electronics isn’t nearly as strong, and thus the prevalence of Chinese domestic e-waste is more common at Huaqiangbei. But the trade hasn’t disappeared entirely. Developing countries from Indonesia to India to Kenya are engaged in the same trade, with the same goals, pioneered by China. For example, Ghana has become a focus for exporters of used electronics from Europe. The intense media coverage of e-waste dumping in West Africa might lead one to believe that all those gadgets are bound for toxic waste heaps. But there’s actually very little documentary support for that common narrative.

In 2009, for example, Ghana imported 215,000 metric tons of “electric and electronic equipment,” according to a comprehensive study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Of that, 15 percent—roughly 32,250 metric tons—was bound for the dump. That’s a barely measurable portion of the 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste generated globally in 2015. Meanwhile, the other 85 percent of electronics imported into Ghana was working or was repairable and, in all likelihood, bound for repair and resale shops.

And the trade isn’t just a pipeline from developed to developing countries. The global used-smartphone market amounted to 53 million units in 2015, according to the UK-based Green Alliance. It’s likely to grow to 257 million units by 2018, as more smartphones from developing countries are upgraded. Some of those used phones will be trashed or recycled, but many will flow to other developing countries. These days, it’s not at all difficult to find used Chinese phones for sale in Nairobi or Delhi. In fact, Apple has long tried to get permission to establish a factory in India to refurbish used Chinese phones. If it can’t, those phones will likely flow elsewhere. And it’s not just developing-world phones: in 2014, Sprint refurbished more than 80 percent of the 3 million phones it had bought back from US consumers.

Collectively, these various trade streams form one of the most powerful informal green economies in the world. Formalizing it, however, requires more than end-of-life care. It’s got to start in the cradle—at the design studios. Yet for reasons all their own, many of the world’s biggest consumer-electronics companies are fighting tooth and nail to make repair more difficult. Some manufacturers have invoked copyright protection to prevent the online distribution of authorized repair manuals. Others—especially Apple—have incorporated design elements that make simple repairs more difficult. A few years ago, Apple started using a unique “pentalobe” screw head to close up the iPhone. Anyone lacking a screwdriver that could open it would find their efforts at repair stymied, at least temporarily.

Nonetheless, not all hope is lost. Specialized screwdrivers notwithstanding, hints of a more formalized re-use economy are emerging.

The idea of designing for a product’s afterlife isn’t new. Manny Bodner, the recently retired president of Bodner Metal & Iron in Houston, Texas, told me that the scrap-recycling industry first contemplated the idea in the 1970s. Back then, steel mills were starting to mix new chemical elements into their steel to alter its physical properties. “But when it came time for the scrap yards to return the steel to the mills, well, they were in trouble,” Bodner recalled during a phone call. The mills, it turned out, didn’t want those new elements going back into their furnaces and messing up the chemistry of other steel products. And that left the recyclers with a real problem: where to recycle?

As frustration rose, a solution was sought. As Bodner put it to me: “We need to have a design for recycling.”

It would take a few years for these ideas to coalesce, but in the 1990s, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the world’s leading recycling trade association, launched a Design for Recycling (DFR) initiative. The goal was single-minded: eliminate or reduce anything that might impede recycling their products at the design stage. A recycling-friendly design can mean a lot of things. For example, it can mean not installing toxic, hard-to-reach, mercury-filled switches in automobiles (a long-standing issue). But it can also be a principle; a recycling-friendly product is one that’s held together by screws, not glues.

Tamper-resistant pentalobe screws. ©ifixit

Tamper-resistant pentalobe screws. ©ifixit

Of course, this is all easier said than done—a point that Bodner, who led the DfR task force for ISRI over most of the past decade, tells me. “The incremental costs to make a product [that is designed for recycling] can’t be so far away [as] to make it unattainable. It’s not a feel-good decision, it’s an economic decision that you can feel good about.”

Fortunately, there are companies thinking along those lines. Scott O’Connell, director of environmental affairs at Dell, has been thinking seriously about product sustainability for years. Over the past half-decade, he’s presided over the development of one of the world’s first and most advanced “closed loop” recycling systems. The idea is simple: Dell collects used electronics, sends them to a recycler, and then uses the recovered plastics in new laptops. It’s not a publicity stunt, either. In 2014, a Dell official told me that, while engineers work to save pennies inside a computer, closed-loop plastics used on the outside of a computer “save quarters.” By early summer 2016, Dell was shipping 48 products that incorporate closed-loop plastics.

84% of the carbon emissions associated with the iPhone 6s is related to manufacture of the phone—only 10% comes from usage. This makes product lifetime the key determinant of overall environmental impact.

O’Connell, in a call from his home in Texas, explained that “closed loop” and other Dell initiatives shift the frame of reference for the company’s designers. “We’re thinking about this from a downstream perspective. At some point, the laptop is going to a recycler.” And that recycler might very well be supplying plastic to Dell manufacturing, giving Dell a strong incentive to ensure that the product is easy and cheap to recycle. For O’Connell and Dell, it’s not enough simply to think about what it means to recycle. “We’re taking our designers into recyclers so they can see, eight years down the line, the consequences of the good and the bad. We’ve found that to be a pretty powerful experience for them.”

Where Dell really pushes against the trend, however, is in the steps that it’s taking to extend the life of products. From a sustainability perspective, this makes perfect sense. A product that is repairable and hence lasts longer is one that doesn’t need to be replaced by a new one. The problem is that, at least superficially, this would seem to work against the mindset of today’s upgrade-happy electronics industry. But O’Connell tells me that’s not necessarily the case.

“Repairability: is it good for business?” He asks rhetorically. “Yeah, it’s another touchpoint for the customer.” So for a company like Dell, which has a large business supplying hardware to big commercial customers, repair is an opportunity to perhaps service thousands of machines. Or, even more promising, it’s an opportunity to manage the end-of-service period for hardware. That might mean sending it into a closed-loop recycling system. Or, even more sustainably, it might mean using one of Dell’s service centers to repair and refurbish that equipment so it can have a second life elsewhere.

And that means designing for repair is in Dell’s interest. So—even at a time when electronics across the board are becoming more difficult to open up and service—Dell is actually taking an opposite approach. O’Connell points me to the company’s Latitude laptops, which are aimed at business customers. “In the latest generation of those, we now have a single access door to the major components of repair.” Consequently, rather than sealing up the computers àla the MacBook, Dell now allows access to the innards using a Phillips screwdriver.

But this brings up a critical question: can something as small and self-contained as a smartphone or a digital camera also be repairable for the average consumer? After all, it’s one thing to repair a laptop (even a super-thin one), but a smartphone presents all kinds of new micro-challenges.

That’s the problem that confronted Dave Hakkens, a design student in the Netherlands, back in 2012. His digital camera had stopped working. But nobody, including the camera manufacturer, was willing to sell him the new lens motor necessary to fix it.

That got Hakkens thinking. For his final school project, he came up with a radical new idea for a mobile phone. Rather than build an entire handset that would be tossed away when it broke or became obsolete, he proposed a handset that’s more like a skeleton and could be endlessly modified by adding and subtracting modules (“blocks”) to it. Want a better camera? Buy a module and snap it into the phone’s “endoskeleton.” Care for more battery? Buy and snap in one of those, too! Hakkens’s phone could theoretically last forever.

In the fall of 2013, he turned the idea into a short and entertaining YouTube video that showed precisely how the Phonebloks concept would work and made the environmental case for it. As of 2016, more than 21 million people have watched it.

Several companies reached out to Hakkens after the video went viral. Among them was a team at Motorola Mobility, then owned by Google. “Motorola asked me to work on it,” Hakkens states. “But I thought it should be an industry-wide movement, not just a single company. I wanted to support other modular phones.” It’s an “idea for the world,” says Hakkens, who has steadfastly refused to make money from the project.

Others are not quite so idealistic. In 2014, Google sold its Motorola assets to Lenovo but kept its team developing the modular phone. Since then, several modular phones have appeared, including the Lenovo-designed Moto Z, which allows users to snap a handful of accessories, including batteries and speaker modules, into a port on the phone’s back. It’s not close to Hakkens’s original vision (a fact he acknowledges) but it’s definitely a step away from the closed box that is the iPhone.

Meanwhile, the Google team has embarked on a much more ambitious endeavor: Project Ara. The Ara phone is not just a simple skeleton waiting for modules ranging from screens to processors, à la Hakkens’s original concept. Instead, it’s a full-fledged phone that includes a screen and a processor. Modules can be added like blocks, but they’re essentially accessories to a finished phone. That’s going much further than the Moto Z—and way beyond current closed designs from leading manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, and Huawei. But it’s still quite limited. “What if your screen breaks?” Hakkens asks in a recent blog post. “Well, you still need to replace the entire phone. And after a couple of years it gets slow, and you need to replace your entire skeleton.”

When I reached out to Google to discuss Project Ara, they turned down my request. Perhaps the problem was that I specifically wanted to discuss what—if any—impact the phone might have on the e-waste issue. Google, as Hakkens told me, has been less committed to this as a reason for building the phone. And perhaps that’s how it should be. The point, after all, was to create a phone that lasts longer. The question of whether it generates less waste should—in theory—answer itself.

Nonetheless, Google’s modular phone isn’t nearly as ambitious as the one that Hakkens envisioned. On a basic level, Project Ara fails to answer his original problem: how do you fix a broken digital camera? Presumably, the miniaturized cameras designed for Project Ara will be even more difficult to repair than the full-sized one that broke for Hakkens in 2012. And if it can’t be repaired, what happens to it?

Manny Bodner has spent his professional life in recycling, and he’s concise in describing the conundrum. “Design for disassembly is not equal to design for recycling,” he says. “You can safely disassemble a component that’s hazardous.” For example, it may be easy to remove and replace the battery module from a Project Ara phone, but without a safe recycling option, the benefits of that modular battery are nil. Bodner points out that the problem can flow in other directions, too. “You can have a product that’s very difficult to disassemble, but all of those components are safe.” Would that product be inferior to a modular one made from hazardous materials?

There are no easy answers to those questions. But perhaps the most daring response is the Fairphone 2, a modular phone designed in the Netherlands by a nonprofit “social enterprise” determined to change the conversation about electronics. The Fairphone 2 is expandable, repairable, and designed to be dropped and survive. But Fairphone’s designers go even further: they work to ensure that the supply chains responsible for the raw materials in the phone are ethically sourced. At the same time, the company has made a commitment to recycling phones, including an unprecedented effort to import phones from Ghana for safe recycling in Europe as a means to balance out the Fairphone 2’s overall environmental impact.

When I ask Miquel Ballester Salvà, a cofounder of Fairphone, whether such a model can be profitable, he replies that the company has sold a total of 45,000 phones since 2013. (The iPhone can sell 45,000 units in a matter of hours.) And despite the impressive environmental benchmarks set by Fairphone, they can’t top the green credentials of electronics assembled (and re-assembled) from used components in places such as Shenzhen, Delhi, and Nairobi. But the good news is that Fairphone and other manufacturers, both big and small, are moving in the direction of repairable electronics that can and will be used longer. That’s an important step on the road to sustainability.

“Right to Repair” lawscropping up around the US can get us even further. The idea is simple: manufacturers would be required to make public their repair manuals and spare parts to anyone who wants them. It would also be in their interest to do so, if only to capture a bit of the already considerable revenues being made in Huaqiangbei. The automobile industry has made a fortune from refurbishing and reselling automobile parts for decades. Why not the mobile phone and laptop manufacturers, too?

For too long, we’ve been stuck in the mindset that there’s no value in repairing and re-using what we already have. It’s time to fix that.

Adam Minter writes a column for Bloomberg View from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, is an insider’s account of the hidden world of globalized trash.
About the header image: Used printed circuit boards (PCBs), Agbogbloshie, Ghana ©Fairphone. Fairphone is a social enterprise company which aims to develop smartphones that are designed and produced with minimal harm to people and the planet.