Scrap Metal or "E-Waste" Recycling? Electric Razor

I'm not too happy with yesterday's post.  I got back late on Sunday with the truck, following the collection event in Kingston Rhode Island, and went looking for something in the "draft" folder which was close to finished work.  The CRT Demand Forecast wasn't that bad, but I'm a bit tired of writing about display devices and CRTs, and many people have gotten the point by now.

Display devices don't become obsolete, and whether a CRT can be sold for reuse depends entirely on how many poor people can have literacy and electricity.  CRTs are a declining share of a growing market.  So it depends which happens faster, growth of the market or price pressure from flat screens.

Done.  Ok, what about electric razors?

I shaved with a Braun which my mom got me for Christmas, probably more than ten years ago.  I've replaced the razor head twice, and really like that I'm able to find new heads online.  It's rechargeable, and though I leave it plugged in all the time (probably not good for the battery), it works for the 60 seconds I need it to shave when I travel with it for several days.  Today's question, when it does break or get replaced, what do I do with it?  In this society, probably the most likely cause of displacement of the razor is that I'll be gifted another new one, and if that keeps happening, I'll stop buying replacement razor heads.

In theory, if I simply decide not to replace the razor head, someone else who's in a more frugal country may do it themselves and be grateful.  But I chose razors today for a reason.   From what I remember, when I shared a house with Mbaku Christopher, the other English teacher (an Anglophone from S.. town south of Bamenda, before the ring-road), white people electric razors do not work very well for Africans.  He tried my electric for awhile, hoping it would help his razor-burn face, and told me it made it worse than ever.   Let's assume also that plenty of new razors are manufactured in Asia, and that the repair and reuse market is low.

I assume that the tiny circuit board and rechargeable battery would fail the "focus material" test for R2, requiring domestic handling, and fail the waste export test for Basel Convention.   I am pretty confident, however, that the amount of copper and hard rock mining metals in the razor would be very worthwhile to recycle, compared to getting the same amount of material from ore.

If the material is exported as "breakage", what is going to happen to it?

It may become a lottery ticket for a gentleman like this Egyptian (below, at the Goma flea market, Cairo).  I've seen these scavengers in Africa and in China, spending the day with a blanketful of electronic gadgets and trinkets.  My Egyptian friend and host Hamdy pointed out that a flea market guy was also selling European electrical wall switches, pulled out of some construction and demolition debris, and told me that the German mark was considered higher quality than the new 'made in China' electric outlets.  So, there's a chance that a guy will sell my electric razor off of his blanket full of "party favors".   But there is zero chance that I'll be able to audit that and report on the end market destination, so if sold "for reuse" I won't have the impeccable records I have for SKD factory CRT reuse.

If someone burns the razor on a pile of wire, like the kids at the landfill in Ghana, there wouldn't be a lot of evidence where the razor had been generated, but let's say we track this one and it's definitely mine.   Burning the plastic is nasty.   Let's assume though that the kid stands away from the fire - something the kids normally do unless and anti-export photographer is asking them to stand closer to it.   Burning the electrics razor on top of the other wire will put some lead solder into the ashes, resulting in pollution.  The lithium rechargable battery is worth more in scrap value than the copper these days, so unless the person burning it doesn't know the recycling business, it's not in the fire pile.   It's questionable whether the pollution is as bad as if you get a similar amount of copper out of a copper mine, and I'd still argue that the world is a better place than if you throw the razor away in a USA landfill and mine the same amount of copper from OK Tedi mine on Borneo, where the mining leads to extinction of Orangutans (adding strange meaning the the juxtaposed images in the Braun razor advertisement shown below).   But I'm in the minority there, most people feel revulsion and so we cannot be honest with clients and ship the razor as "breakage" if it's going to be burned.

So, what should happen?  Let's assume that the recycler got the razor, it didn't sell off the blanket, and the recycler knows not to burn batteries etc.  What could they do in a "fair trade" scenario?  Disassemble the razor by hand.

Clank!  A quick flick of the wrist, and the razor is thrown onto a cement floor or into a barrel.  The plastic flies off, leaving a steel piece, a tiny circuit board, the copper wire, and the battery.  Snap!  With some wire cutters, those different metals are quickly sorted into boxes.   The tiny circuit board can now go with the printed wiring board for proper recycling at a smelter, perhaps one in Japan or Belgium.  The steel can go into a steel box.  The copper wire can also be sold to a secondary smelter, or even  be cut by a woman with a razor who removes the insulation and sets aside bright and shiny electric grade copper, which can now skip ahead to the end of the refining line, saving massive carbon and pollution costs.  You all know, I think that manual disassembly, with proper financial incentives and technical assistance, is the best possible end use.  I love the ladies who create valuable metals without strip mines.

But alas, let's say we cannot get the razor to this Fair Trade Recycling operation.  Perhaps the host nation bans the import, like China.   Or the USA contract with the generator prohibits export of the unit.  Now what?
  • We could demanufacture it by hand in the USA.
  • We could bale it with the printed circuit boards and send it to an R2 destination.  Hopefully, someone examined whether it was a rechargable battery or a straight plug-in razor, like my older Braun.
  • We could run it through a Maser shredder, which turns and grinds and turns and grinds, spending more energy to get the copper fraction mechanically separated from the steel fraction.
  • We could throw it straight into a mine pit, and hope that the refining chain will get out the lithium and copper and iron the same way as when those materials are combined in ore.
  • Most likely to occur?  In Vermont, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and other places I'm familiar with, the razor will get thrown into a pile of scrap metal, headed for a steel shredder.  It will get recycled, a la Jimmy Hoffa, but whether the materials wind up in China or not, in tiny pieces, is an open question.  "I recycled it in the USA" sometimes means "I made it in small pieces in the USA".  See posts on scrap metal and ZORBA.
  • We can send the item back to Braun.  Braun will then make the decision, from among the same choices I've laid out above.  Except Braun probably won't allow reuse.  Just as Nissan shredded an entire sea ship full of cars when the ship listed to the side and the cars were damaged, Braun won't want the potential liability if they sell reused parts themselves, and Braun definitely won't want someone else making the decision on the gray market.  
So, how do we answer this question?  With all the twitter advice, all the Facebook ads for recycling, with all the Stewardship and  fanfare, how do OECD nations recycle electric razors, something people have been handing out as Christmas presents for decades?


TheIrrationalist said...

You claimed that lithium ion batteries are worth more than copper these days. That's not true at all. While lithium ion batteries are valuable as scrap, copper scrap is still much more valuable<a href=">.</a>

Robin said...

Dear TheIrrationalist,

Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed following your own post, and will follow you on twitter (I'm @WR3A btw). I think you are right today, though I've seen lithium scrap move at $3 per pound when copper was far below that, and we are getting a lot of calls looking for lithium since the Chinese rare-earth boycott of Japan. I think the point of the post obviously holds, which is that an ignorant scrapper might do who-knows-what, but an informed scrapper is not going to throw away metals that are in demand.

The Irrationalist said...
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