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E-waste recycling’s wasted logistics costs

by Jonathan Gilbert, Technology Forecasters Inc. (TFI)  

A recent MIT Senseable City Lab project, BackTalk ( placed small GPS devices in electronic waste to track where our discarded items go for recycling and disposal. The result was so surprising – uncovering such far distances traveled by the e-waste – that the project is currently exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Given the high carbon footprint and cost of transportation, today’s e-waste recycling infrastructure could be taxing both profits and the environment. We at TFI think there may be a solution.  

MIT’s team examined a concept they called the “removal chain.” One finding was that e-waste often moves via “convoluted” and inefficient paths to recycling centres. A blog in the New York Times stated: “According to Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, the mapping raised some serious questions about the usefulness and net environmental impact of recycling certain electronics.”  

Excessive shipping activity is waste, ironically consuming resources for the purpose of recycling physical waste. The most egregious example from MIT showed junk cell phones moving from the Seattle area all the way to Florida for processing.  

We believe that the configuration of the current recycling marketplace causes most of this wasted transportation. As e-waste is sorted into various streams, it is routed to whichever company or region provides the cheapest processing/highest payout to the recycler, or to the few facilities that are certified to process an item. For example, the MIT project noted that only 13 facilities in the world are certified to smelt down and recycle the cathode ray tubes of old television sets, and all are in Asia.  

This got us at TFI thinking about how to make the system work better. Beyond the obvious answers of reducing consumption and re-using obsolete devices for other purposes, moving recycling activity closer to the origins of the waste streams would help substantially.  

One possible way to “move” processing closer to demand would be to trade recycling credits between service providers using an arrangement like tolling. Tolling agreements are the system currently used in the refining and industrial gas industries allowing the trading of credits for the transport/processing/conversion/delivery of various products. This allows the most efficient provider to make or deliver the product regardless of who owns the contract with the customer.    

Applying tolling agreements to e-waste recycling services would enable companies to swap capacity where demand is high by exchanging credits, potentially saving costs and the environment in the process. Recyclers would trade capacity with each other, allowing the closest facilities to handle demand in each region.  

Jonathan Gilbert is a Logistics Consultant at California-based Technology Forecasters Inc. and invites comments on this topic.