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You’re Right, George Monbiot Is Completely Wrong About The Environment

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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.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Does Monbiot ever get anything right? It’s frightening that he gets space in a national newspaper. True it’s only the Guardian and it’ll be gone soon…

    Tin whiskers was new to me too.

    • Whiskers are a real thing, but personal experience suggests that the 3-4 year timescale Tim discusses is very pessimistic. I’m typing this on a 4yo PC that has had no problems, my ‘reserve’ PC is 13yo (and runs Win10 without problems) – but that predates the 2011 EU ‘ban’ on lead in solder (?this may have been relaxed in 2018).

  2. Good article.
    I’d also like to add that unlike the first produced billets of copper I believe the reclaimed copper is full of impurities that then require further processing before we are left with pure(r) copper, which will be different each time due to the irregular quality of the feedstock.
    Similarly, this is one of the problems with energy production using biomass from waste, the feedstock has to be relatively stable but consumer waste output type is anything but so further cost is added in pre-processing.

    Also, do you have a twitter account I can follow?

  3. You do remind me of the recent fuss here about the Chinese no longer feeling it worth their while to recycle Aussie rubbish. I did sympathise with their point of view. After all, if it’s so useless to us that we want to dump it, one can hardly complain if the Chinese feel the same.

    A bloke down in Newcastle promptly proposed that the stuff be burned to provide green energy, but the Greens immediately shat on him from a great height. That pollutes the environment. The only politically correct solution is that it should all be hand sorted by straight white males.

    Of course back in the good old days when I was a boy, we all had an incinerator in the back yard, so anything burnable could be got rid of. The rubbish bin was quite a bit smaller too. But naturally that was banned as polluting the environment.

  4. “Our appliances are designed to break down, they are deliberately engineered not to be repaired.”

    Shows how much he knows about manufacturing design. For a start, they’re not designed to break down. A high short term failure rate would show up on the consumer rating sites as not advised to buy. And it’s not even logical. If a manufacturer designed his product to break down, there’s no guarantee he’ll sell the consumer the replacement. Why would you buy crap again?

    And no, you engineer to be cheap. The more modularity you design in, the dearer it is to manufacture & assemble. All those screws & clips a repairman will undoing have to done up on the assembly line. Simply bonding it all together as one unit can make an repairable product cheaper than the repair costs of a repairable one. But then Monbiot’s the sort of bloke, thinks spending five hours of his time bodging a repair on something cost five quid is economic sense.

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expunct (ɪkˈspʌŋkt)
VERB (transitive)
1. to delete or erase; blot out; obliterate
2. to wipe out or destroy

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