Copper Factbook

Is disposal (landfilling and incineration) the opposite, or competitor, of recycling?  Nope.  Recycling raw material (scrap) feedstock has only one true competitor.  That is mining, or virgin feedstock.

Therefore, if you really want to be an expert on "e-waste" or "e-scrap", you need to take the time to stay up on the raw materials markets.   I've often linked to US Geological Survey as an excellent source of information on raw materials and scrap material demand and production.   But if you want to drill down deeper, research the metals industries.  Here is a copy of the 2010 World Copper Factbook, produced by the ICSG (International Copper Study Group).

2010 World Copper Factbook

Policy analysts, protesters, regulators, trade journalists, and academics do of course need to follow logic and understand the psychology (cognitive risk) behind law and policy.   But they also need economics, current events (recent history), etc., to know the "competitor" backwards and forwards (ref: Sun Tzu).   If poverty and cost externalization is the key factor behind "e-waste exports", then one would predict Haiti is a major importer.  Of course, smelting capacity and finished copper demand are far better predictors of where e-scrap travels.  The smelters and mines are also, surprise, surprise, the source of pollution in Southern Chinese rivers - NOT the reuse or recycling.   Surgeons removing the wrong organ... it's generally frowned upon.

The maps in this ICSG publication refer to raw material trade (imports and exports) only, but they also distinguish between raw copper cathode and refined copper. Poverty does have one advantage - they can sort, by hand, various grades of copper wire in order to distinguish between these different markets.  Automated shredders, to my knowledge, don't know communication grade electric copper from a bathroom pipe.  Sorting these coppers by hand, and recovering reuse (added value) like copper heat sinks that can be directly reused - that is a win win.  Metal sorting isn't just environmentally good (bravo to the housewives with blue bins), it's also a moral good, as well as a good wage, for women in China. It creates affordable recycling, well paid jobs in the importing nation, avoids mining and refining pollution, etc.

One still needs to understand the reuse map, where jobs like "television repair" tend to follow 3B3K demand (the 3 billion people earning 3 thousand dollars per year, i.e. emerging markets).  In places like China and India, where the both lines intersect, you find very good potential to export mixed electronics.  The fact that those two countries also represent almost half of the population of planet Earth may also have something to do with these being a "safe bet".  That kind of analysis demands Math, and I guess I need to refer some policy analysist first to Sesame Street.  Counting is important.  Yes, counting is important.

It is easier, and important, to study raw materials, like copper mining and production.  The carbon and pollution is simple... recycling is good.    There are fewer "moving parts" than in the reuse, repair, refurbishment, gray market, counterfeit, donation, etc. industries. Moore's law does not apply.


-- Postscript:  What does apply?  If you missed it, watch the short video on world population growth I posted here last week (Earth Population to Exceed 7 Billion).  This chart correlates pretty well with the charts in the copper graph, and if laws and regulations predjudice against used / recycled material in favor of virgin / mined material, the population growth will destroy the damn planet.  

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