Tuesday, 24 April 2007

e-Waste : cradle-to-grave?

Under the Kampus Sejahtera initiative, all old computers which are condemned as obsolete are now sold off through competitive bidding. Currently only two companies are actively participating in our programme. The amount we get from the sale of condemned machines is only a tiny portion of the original cost but the goal is to prevent the computers from ending up in the landfills. Incidentally, in advanced nations, you have to pay the contractor to disporse off your old computers. So, some of these enterprising companies in Malaysia actually import the "old" computers from Europe. And comparatively, the "old" computers from Europe are new by our standards, mainly Pentium 4s.

So what happens to the old computers when they leave our campuses? I and three other colleagues from Kampus Sejahtera paid a visit to one of our contractors to find out. This one is a small company (but I suspect he is doing big business). I was interested in how he got into the business. He started off selling computers and than these chaps from the recycling factories dropped by and taught him how to dismantle the parts to sell to the factories. The dismantled parts fetch higher prices. The components which can be recycled are iron, aluminium, copper, plastic and gold!! It seems there is no mercury in the machine. The ICs (integrated circuits) are one of the main parts which can be reused. As for the wires, it seems that the big companies in KL have machines which can strip the plastic insulation from the copper. And KL offer better prices. But in the Penang area there some 20 such operations (I have not verified this). Do we have so many old computers to feed this many factories in Penang? Apparently not - they get their supplies in container loads from overseas.

I was assured that every part of the computer, including the monitor can be reused. The carthode ray tube for instead can be reused to make "new" monitors or even TVs but I think this will eventually die off because of the popularity of flat-screen LCD and plasma. Some of the recycling factories merely strip the parts down and export them to China for further processing. So its a global supply-chain working here. In Penang, we are famous for the Dell factory which assemble parts from all over the world to make customised computers for the world market (this is the cradle end). Then there's the grave end, taking old computers for reuse and recycling them. From cradle-to-grave, is that the essence of sustainable development? Actually, that is the old model. The grave is actually the landfill.

The new model for the enlightened manufacturer is cradle-to-cradle. When designing a product, e.g. a handphone or camcorder, the manufacturer will make sure that when the lifetime of the current product comes to an end, it can immediate become input into the next cycle of production. Amongst the things the manufacturer will consider is that the type of plastics are standardised (too many different types of plastic in a single product makes it difficult to recycle), paints are not used in the plastic, and that is it is fast and easy to completely dismantle the product into the components for recycling. Taking too long to dismantle them makes recycling costly. OK, we are still not cradle-to-cradle yet as far as computers are concerned.

This company which we visited in Gelugor does not do the actually extraction and recycling (our other contractor does and we are waiting to pay him a visit soon). The first thing that his staff of 7 does is to examine whether the computers can be repackaged for sale; some of his workers have diploma in electronics. Any computer below Pentium 3 has no resale value and are dismantled for their parts. Aluminium and gold are highly priced. It seems that there is a small market for these old computers which are sold at about RM300 for a set (Pentium 3, 128 MB RAM, 6 Gig harddisk, wireless network card and a 15" monitor). Of course this vendor cleans it up and there's a 3 month warranty. They also "export" to rural areas of Kelantan and Terengganu where there is some demand for this very affordable computers. He says there is a monthly demand of 10 to 15 units of these repackaged computers. But his big business is in selling the parts to the factories. He's got 7 workers who are quite well paid so the business must be sustainable.

You must be wondering how much is your old computer worth? The CPU is worth RM5 to RM10 while the CRT monitor is about RM15. Keyboards, mouse extra, etc. are free, i.e. you don't get paid for those. If you are thinking its not worth your while transporting it all the way to the shop for just RM20 or so, then think about what you are doing to save Mother Earth.

Trivia question - How long does it take to completely dismantle a CPU into its components parts? About 5 minutes according to the expert we visited - aided by battery-powered tools.

1 comment:

Davis said...

interesting topic on e waste, i myself are just working on the waste management biz... mainly in e waste for now... well, Malaysian should just have a higher civilization awareness on waste pollution to the earth...