Or, to be a little more accurate than headline space normally allows, George Monbiot is completely wrong about the economics of the environment. Once again.
For he tells us that there’re billions, really, billions, in rare metals in the stuff we throw away:
This month we learned that $10bn-worth of precious metals, such as gold and platinum, are dumped in landfill every year, embedded in tens of millions of tonnes of lesser materials, in the form of electronic waste.
This isn’t true. Not in the slightest. A small – a modicum even – of thought shows why it cannot be.
I assume we can all agree that capitalists are greedy. I think it’s also fairly obvious that capitalists – being human – are lazy. And which laze yet greedy bastards would leave $10 billion just to sit in holes in the ground? None, obviously. So, there must be something else going on here.
That something else being that to take those metals out of those electronics costs more than $10 billion. The big cost here, this being true of near all recycling, being the collection of the electronics into great big piles so that it can be processed. If we’ve 5,000 tonnes of PCs right here even I can show you how to make money out of processing the lot. It’s getting the PCs, one by one from teenage bedrooms, into our 5,000 piece pile that costs the money.
As to the generally true bit we can see this in prices. The prices of recyclable goods work the opposite way to those for retail goods. As we all know prices rise the smaller the volume and the further away from the place of manufacture. Say, ooooh, a piece of copper pipe, the right shape and curvature etc for the back of a sink unit. Just imagine. At the producing factory this is a little more than the cost of the copper plus a modest about for the tube making and bending. But you’ve got to buy 50000 to get that price. As these coppery bits diffuse through the retail system they rise in price and the purchase unit falls. The wholesaler will break those 50,000 into 5,000 units say at a higher price. The distributor into 500 unit chunks at a higher price again and so on until you buying one unit at B&Q are paying £5 for each one.
Recycling works the other way around. One extra little coppery bit left over and lying in the back garden is worth pretty much nothing. At the scrap yard it’s worth a few pence and as it is agglomerated with ever more pieces and moves up the stream closer to the refinery it asymptotically approaches the value of plain straight copper again.
The cost in recycling is in getting the recyclable in volume at the plant. That’s why prices rise as this is achieved.
So, is there $10 billion in metals in those electronics? Nope. Because this process of getting them into the one pile costs more than the $10 billion – well, that plus the physical process of actually getting each individual metal out.
What would be true to say is that we spend $10 billion and more in getting the metals into those electronics. But that doesn’t mean that we can gain $10 billion again by getting them out. We do, after all, spend more than $10 billion on haircuts but that doesn’t mean we can regain that sum by untrimming hair, does it?
It’s also possible to be a little snide here:
It is driven by another outlandish norm: planned obsolescence. Our appliances are designed to break down, they are deliberately engineered not to be repaired.
Tin whiskers. If you use a pure tin solder then the electronics will grow little whiskers which will, over the course of perhaps 3 or 4 years, short circuit the system. Hmm, OK, has a good chance of doing so. The cure for tin whiskers is to add lead to the tin solder. This is now illegal because using lead is verboeten on environmental grounds. Thus we have a shorter life span for electronics. And yes, it is worth noting that the electronics which really does have to be reliable is not subject to the no lead rule.