Sticking Our Heads in the Sand? We Shouldn’t Have To

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Peter Holgate conveys an air of confidence without seeming arrogant. His desire to achieve something “consequential” with his third startup drove him to found Ronin8, a company whose mission revolves around changing the world by changing e-waste processing. I met with Peter in his Vancouver, BC office recently to interview him for the book I’m writing on sustainable materials management.

Since e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, the topic plays an appropriately important role in my book. In his book Making the Modern World, Vaclav Smil writes, “all wasteful uses of materials have both economic and environmental costs.” Nowhere is this perhaps clearer than with the proliferation of electronic devices and their subsequent disposal. Far too many devices are ending up in landfills, but even those being sent to so-called “responsible” e-waste recycling companies may not be handled in a truly responsible manner.

I have only ever lived in California and Washington, so it surprised me to learn that half of the states in the U.S. have no e-waste regulations whatsoever. I am not surprised that CA was the first to enact such a law, back in 2003. WA and OR followed suit with their own versions in 2006 and 2007, respectively, to cover the entire West Coast. There are no federal rules regarding e-waste, and it seems highly unlikely that the current administration will enact any, so I expect that e-waste recycling will continue to be managed at the state level.

Map showing states that have enacted e-waste regulations, and the year in which they did so. States in grey have no regulations in place.

Having state laws, however, is no guarantee that e-waste will be recycled properly. For example, breaking news in September 2016 told the story of a Washington state “responsible” recycler that was illegally dumping e-waste overseas rather than processing it locally, as required as part of its certification as a green recycler. The state of WA fined Total Reclaim, WA’s largest recycler, almost half a million dollars. Oregon, a state in which Total Reclaim also operated, followed suit in 2017 with its own fine and banned the company from collecting e-waste.

This story is just another example of consumers being duped, thinking we were doing the right thing by bringing our old electronics to an e-waste facility. Since the story aired, Total Reclaim claims to have taken multiple steps to improve its recycling processes and try to regain the public’s trust as an “environmentally responsible recycler.”

Putting our heads in the sand is perhaps the easy way out. We drop our e-waste off at what looks like a legitimate recycling location and assume it will be dealt with properly. In the best case, the e-waste will be processed locally, at facilities where the workers wear suitable protection from lead, cadmium, and the toxic dust and fumes created by grinding and incinerating the circuit boards from old cell phones and computers. In the worst case, e-waste will be shipped to facilities where workers are subjected to dangerous conditions every day. In many e-waste recycling facilities, both in North America and abroad, prisoners work essentially as slave labor.

The employees of Ronin8 believe there is a better way. I first wrote about Ronin8 a year ago, shortly after hearing CEO Peter Holgate speak at a conference. In the past year, the company has made progress toward commercializing its innovative approach to processing e-waste. Its facility near Vancouver can handle a significant volume of material every day.

Ronin8’s process uses a low-frequency, high-amplitude sonic generator that makes use of sound waves to separate materials in ground up circuit boards. When a bar of solid steel vibrates at its resonant frequency, much like a massive tuning fork, it becomes a very efficient energy generator. The resulting energy of the sound waves naturally causes elements to separate by weight. Describing how that works is beyond the scope of this blog post. Since metals are heavier than plastics, the sonic generator creates a metal waste stream and a non-metal waste stream.

Because the grinding and separating occurs under water, the process generates no dust. This means not only avoiding toxic fumes but reclaiming nearly all the materials in the circuit board. A cell phone contains a surprising number of metals (see photo). Some, like gold and silver, are quite valuable. Other materials are less expensive per gram, but recovering and reusing them means there is less need to mine more metals for the next generation of phones.

Elements used in a smart phone.

Too few people really want to make a positive difference in the world and are willing to do the due diligence necessary to make it happen, but Peter seems genuinely invested in doing the right thing. Yes, he is ambitious, and yes, he wants to create a profitable venture, but isn’t letting those desires get in his way of being a responsible corporate citizen. I admire that.

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