(A shorter version of this essay appeared in the September 2016 issue of E-Scrap News)
Article and all photographs by Verena Radulovic
Lima, Peru. Any given weekday.
Vendors weave between grid-locked vehicles to sell juice and chocolate to exasperated drivers, the air thick and tired with exhaust fumes. Just off the main boulevard Abancay, where buses and cars ignore traffic lanes, lies a pedestrian-only byway called Leticia Street. It’s situated under a canopy of haphazardly strung electrical lines and flanked by once-brightly painted low-slung buildings. Keep walking and the street narrows even more until visitors find themselves on a lively block that specializes in repairing and reselling electronics.
A walk down this little street in Peru’s capital provides a glimpse into an understated network that quietly plays a critical role in reducing the environmental impacts of our global production and consumption patterns of electronic devices, and provides insights into how we can reframe the dialogue on how to foster a system of more “sustainable” electronic products.
Small motors harvested from once-functional public telephones, computer cables, small circuit boards plucked from printers, mobile phones, and many other products lie in formation on blankets in the open street. Stacks of personal computers stand at attention nearby. Enter the dim storefronts and indoor malls, where the midday sun barely trickles in, and you will see men and women tinkering away at laptops and computer monitors, fixing them for their customers.
Done safely, repurposing used electronics reincarnates scarce natural resources, invents new jobs, and closes the digital divide by providing refurbished products to those unable to afford new ones. Policy makers and organizations around the world are working to build capacity in less industrialized countries to repurpose and recycle electronics safely, recognizing that demand for electronic scrap, or e-scrap, is high in places that often lack advanced solid waste management and recycling infrastructure. Complementary efforts seek to build out a “Best of Two Worlds” approach, where the informal sector and the formal sector can find ways to work together, thus adapting to the socio-economic reality in many countries that make trading e-scrap attractive to actors ranging from individual, undocumented collectors to established recycling companies.
It is worth noting, however, that to focus solely on shoring up sound refurbishment and recycling systems in response to the fluid, global movement of secondary electronics and corresponding e-scrap material flows obscures the upstream industrial machine that relentlessly generates new products in the first place. The average U.S. household now has up to 24 gadgets plugged in- from game consoles to computers to multiple TVs. Though these products become more energy efficient each year and use fewer materials by becoming physically smaller, we are also swapping these products out at a dizzying clip. In the U.S., each year consumers purchase about 40 million display products, including TVs and computer monitors, and 43 million laptops. Whether intentional or not, manufacturing brands often design for obsolescence, such that a consumer upgrade usually involves purchasing an entirely new product, as most commonly seen with mobile phones. Yet, refurbishing or recycling used electronics significantly decreases their environmental toll by extending the life of the product or its components, thereby diluting its upstream manufacturing impacts. All electronic consumer products use semiconductor technology requiring the use of fluorinated gases, such as sulfur hexafluoride, a gas with 23,000 times more heat trapping potential than carbon dioxide. Manufacturers’ own data show that a substantial portion of the total carbon footprint of a laptop lies in the product’s upstream manufacturing. Reuse or recycling, if scaled, has the potential to mitigate the impacts from mining natural resources such as gold, silver, tin, copper, bauxite, and tantalum that form the materials bedrock of our modern electronics, thus also lessening the complex social consequences associated with their extraction. Conflict minerals provide just one example of the uncomfortable reality involved in producing new products.
Adding to these dynamics, products’ form factors change constantly, thus complicating the predictability of what products will look like and any potential software or hardware compatibility with previous years’ models. Within the last decade, cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs have became obsolete; living rooms today boast razor thin LCD screens. Efficient, mercury-free light emitting diodes (LEDs) have replaced the mercury-containing cold compact fluorescent lights (CCFLs) that earlier served as the backlights for the first generations of flat screen TVs. Motherboards became lighter, thinner, smaller, and integrated circuits are now reaching the limits of nanotechnology.
Against this backdrop, where new products flood the global market and catalyze transboundary flows of e-scrap into eager secondary markets, I wanted to see for myself what electronics reuse and recycling looks like on the ground today in a non-U.S. context. I chose to visit Peru as a first stop because much attention on the flows of e-scrap, often called electronic waste, focuses on Africa and Asia, not Latin America. I was also drawn to the fact that in Peru both the informal and formal sectors are involved in collecting and processing e-scrap. Building on the work of Ramzy Kahhat, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Lima whose research shows that most domestically generated and imported scrap electronics, the majority of which come from the U.S., are refurbished for resale within Peru, I sought to understand what was happening at the local level. Could lessons from Lima inform countries with similar demographics to help them manage their used electronics in an environmentally safe manner? What are today’s biggest challenges and opportunities facing countries like Peru?
“Excuse me, do you have a minute?” We had veered off the sidewalk, down a dark corridor, and ducked into a backroom awash in a fluorescent greenish hue. A man in his mid-twenties glanced up momentarily from his workstation, only to revert back to operating on a mid-sized cathode ray tube (CRT) television, its owner waiting patiently for the full diagnoses and repair. CRT televisions disappeared from American store shelves about a decade ago. And yet, in the backstreets of Lima, a market for used CRT TVs thrives.
“Not now! We are busy!” shouted one repairman as I tried to approach him while he was fixing an antiquated television, customers hovering by. He redirected us to the low-ceilinged den where we– Marco Gusukuma, a PhD student at Pontificia Universidad Catolica, and I—now found ourselves. We set out to visit CRT repair shops to better understand who still wants CRTs repaired, how much it costs to do so, and how difficult it is to repair them. I looked around at the mess of tangled wiring and green circuit boards strewn across every available surface. At first glance, it looked like an earthquake had struck, but at closer inspection, it was simply inventory.
A barrel chested man with jet black hair slicked partially to the side emerged from the back. Victor has worked in TV repair for 30 years. His business is mostly focused on CRT repair, but flat screens are starting to trickle in.
“Oh, you are from the U.S.,” he glared “Yeah, I’ve dealt with the U.S. I once paid for a shipment of CRTs that I ordered because I needed the parts, and all I got was the shell casing and some leaded glass- the carcass of the TV. I couldn’t do anything with it because there was no value left. I was out a lot of money.”
Victor’s experience illustrates the scenario policymakers seek to prevent, by enforcing regulations and creating best practices that limit exportation of junk masquerading as functioning products and to ensure that infrastructure in importing countries can manage e-scrap effectively. But to remain fixed on Victor’s experience is to miss the bigger opportunity- that a robust market exists for products among those who value what we in the U.S. no longer value. In doing so, these customers add to the products’ lifetimes, prolonging the day materials enter the waste stream, diluting the environmental toll of unearthing and processing the raw materials that comprise these electronics.
“Most poorer people come in from rural areas as far away as the jungle to buy these TVs. CRTs hold up better with fluctuating electrical current, especially when thunderstorms impact the grid. Besides, whatever you may say about flatscreens,” shrugged Daniel Rodriguez, a shop owner on Leticia Street, “the image contrast ratio is still better with CRTs.” His 3 foot wide by 12 high foot booth boasted a pile of TVs. Two sales occurred during the 20 minutes I spoke with him. A 20” TV costs about $40 USD, a far cry from the $400 price tag of a new one at Saga Falabella or Hiraoka, two giant department and electronics specialty stores that I later visited.
Back to Victor and the piles of circuit boards. His shop charges 25 soles, or approximately $8, for the labor to repair the TV; replacement parts warrant an additional cost. “They don’t make spare parts!” he lamented of Samsung, LG and other major TV manufacturers. Many of the leading manufacturers of the past thirty years have shuttered their operations, having been pushed out of the market as dominance shifted from firms in Japan to those in Korea and China. As legacy parts are no longer available from legacy companies, repair shops in Lima purchase or hoard CRT TV components to fix their customers’ products. TV brands in operation today may not maintain an inventory of older parts, if they ever made CRTs in the first place, because they do not want to relinquish control over product repair; improper repair can impact future brand loyalty if consumers have an adverse experience with the product. The profitability of engaging in a reuse market for today’s brands may also not be attractive enough for them to pursue it.
I turned my attention to the young man trying to fix the CRT, one of Victor’s “tiger cubs” as he calls his apprentices. What job would he have if he didn’t have this one? Aldair and Richard provided me with some better insight. Earlier, Marco and I headed across the street to a computer and laptop repair shop. Aldair, a young man in his 20s hovered over a circuit board, deep in concentration.
“I used to work in a wool factory, six days a week,” Aldair recounted. “Sometimes I would work nights only for two week stretches and then have to shift back. It wasn’t great.”
Here the hours are more regular 9-5, 5 days a week. How did he learn to repair laptops? “I took one course but You Tube [has been] a great teacher,” Aldair smiled.
“I got my degree in graphic design, but started repairing LCDs about 3 years ago,” said Richard, who opened his own shop on Leticia Street in 2015. LED backlight strips and delicate CCFL tubes lay spread out on a blue cloth in front of him, waiting to be repurposed.
“How long have you had your laptop? Does it make sense to repair it or buy a new one?” I asked the customers waiting by the electronics repair booth clustered in an indoor mall a mile away on Avenida Wilson. Like the shops off Leticia Street, those on Avenida Wilson are a serious commercial exchange. Small booths flank each other, abuzz with repair, each run by their own entrepreneur. Customers anxious to have their laptops repaired met my questions with a blank, quizzical stares. Repairing a computer can cost $30, whereas a new product could cost 20 times that amount. Of course it makes sense to repair it first.
“It’s always the video card that goes first.” The repairman who operates another mini-booth off Avenida Wilson shook his head. “It’s hard to remove from the motherboard.” He pointed to the culprit, rendering the motherboard unusable. The thus cannibalizes components from the motherboard to fix other products, including the 2006 Dell Inspiron laptop that lay open atop his glass table. I recognized it because I owned this model at one point and distinctly recall retiring it in 2010. Here, it could be on its third or fourth life.
Manufacturers today are keenly aware of the double bind in which they find themselves: the need to create durable, if not indestructible, products that can also be easily dismantled for component separation enabling simpler repair and reuse. This latter pressure, as noted earlier, often contradicts the manufacturers’ incentives to sell a new product in lieu of repairing the existing one. For over a decade, stakeholders developing ecostandards and purchasing criteria have been pushing against this tension to specify criteria that allows for innovation to evolve and still account for secondary use.
Design matters and its downstream implications cannot be underestimated. Both on Leticia Street and off Avenida Wilson, LCD monitors awaited diagnoses and repair; in the case of displays, often only the backlight needed replacement. I asked repairmen if an older monitor that once contained CCFLs could instead host an LED backlight transplant, thus potentially making a legacy product more energy efficient. In some cases, doing so appeared feasible, in most others not, pointing to the opportunity to design with modularity in mind, allowing one to retain the form factor by only replacing certain components with new technologies. Given rapid shifts in form factors, could one seamlessly replace certain components with new technologies as they become available without compromising quality? Here we can imagine a future where consumers have viable upgrade options without having to replace the entire device.
And yet, functioning components do not always serve the purpose of replacing their failed counterparts.
“Come, let me show you something,” Daniel summoned us to follow him down Leticia street to meet Señora Dona, a middle-aged woman with a gentle demeanor, sitting in a plastic chair on the sidewalk picking apart a printer, casting the plastic shell exterior into one pile and the valuable components- the power supply and motherboard– into another.
Who buys them?
“Oh, lots of people,” Señora Dona remarked. “People who need them for educational projects, for example. They can be used to make other gadgets.”
I looked at the pile of plastic next two her and noted the presence of ABS, and possibly polypropylene with a mix of polyethylene. Another large CRT TV sat parked next to the mix.
A Critical Link
At the end of Leticia Street, bicycles with flatbed wagons affixed to their front tires occasionally make the rounds. They belong to the cachineros, the informal waste collectors or scavengers, who travel from house to house and business to business collecting an amalgam of used inventory, which they then sell to people like Victor and Daniel. Cachineros also pick up inventory that stores on Leticia Street can’t sell and find other middlemen who will buy them or they dismantle non-functional products and cannibalize the parts for resale. Enter Ricardo, a cachinero who rolled up to Señora Dona’s perch just as she was finished sorting printer parts to scoop up the lone CRT on the street. The plastics remained the domain of another cachinero that would later collect them and sell them to a middleman who filled shipping containers with plastics bound for China.
On any given day Ricardo’s bicycle cart can pile up with 20-30 CRTs, most of which he resells to vendors or harvests the valuable components, such as the copper wiring and circuit board for resale. In pressing Ricardo on what happens to the leaded glass in nonfunctioning TVs, the one component without a valuable secondary market, his answers became vague. Since there is no use for leaded glass, save for a niche application in tilework that has yet to scale global demand, one can surmise that it enters the waste stream.
The cachinero faces two options: bring the CRT to a municipal hazardous waste landfill, were it will be safely disposed, or dispose of it himself. Since it will cost him money and expose his informal economic activity to the local authorities if he opts for the former, we can assume with near certainty that he would choose to remain unobtrusive and deal with offloading CRTs on his own, unregulated. According to Victor, after the sun goes down, he can hear the cachineros break the CRT glass in Leticia’s alleyways to reap the valuable components. It is here where a fragile and important link ruptures in a system that, up until this point, retains products’ value by perpetuating an ongoing exchange between repairmen, customers, dismantlers, and recyclers, providing Peruvians across the economic spectrum access to employment and technology. Where a component has value, a market exists, as is the case when CRT TVs are repairable. But when CRTs are defunct, the leaded glass often becomes an environmental liability when managed in the informal sector.
Challenges: Galvanizing the Informal Sector
“I wish the NGOs and the government would recognize us,” said Daniel, “We are an important part of reusing and recycling products, but they don’t want anything to do with us.”
Of all the vendors on Leticia Street with whom I spoke, only Daniel mentioned the environmental benefits of repairing and reselling previously owned devices and demonstrated a self-awareness of how the informal sector is often viewed by outside stakeholders. Over the past 15 years, documentation and corresponding imagery has repeatedly confirmed that the informal sector sometimes processes and disposes of electronics in ways that harm human health and the environment. Such documentation has been instrumental in creating regulations and policies intended to stem the tide of unsafe recycling, but, without nuance can inadvertently portray the whole informal sector as promulgating harmful practices. Understanding where specific product reuse flows break down and pinpointing specific vulnerabilities is critical both to safeguard human health and the environment and to preserve the informal sector’s overarching role in collecting, repairing and reselling used products.
Recognizing this dynamic, international stakeholders have begun implementing new approaches to promoting sound e-scrap management. Building on research examining ‘Best of Two Worlds’ approaches, both NGOs and the recycling industry in different countries are trying to harness the informal sector for electronics collection and separation at competitive wages and relegate advanced processing of the material to the formal sector. In countries that lack sophisticated waste management services, communities often rely on the waste pickers to collect, sort and glean value from what would otherwise be discarded. In Brazil and India, waste pickers have organized into collectives and, with their clout, are slowly becoming more recognized by authorities and the private sector as part of the solution. However, not all countries share this experience.
“Why don’t you organize yourselves into a larger entity?” Ramzy Kahhat asked Señor Freddy. On my third day in Lima, Ramzy took me to Leticia Street, where he had conducted his fieldwork years ago, to reconnect with his former contacts and research subjects. They were still there, selling used PCs at the end of the street.
“Ah,” Freddy, who has been selling electronics on Leticia Street for at least a decade, shrugged. “Too difficult!”
Freddy’s associates flitted nearby, stacking PCs alongside each other, checking to see if the hard drives were properly inserted.
Just as Ramzy and I were about to head out, a van careened around the corner into view. In a flash, the van’s door slid open and out spilled police dressed in riot gear. Limbs flailed as the officers- masked to avoid recognition and retaliation- grabbed the PCs and began tossing them into the van while the vendors desperately tried to cart off the rest. Peru, at the time of this writing in summer 2016, was experiencing a spate in violence over stolen cell phones and authorities speculated that many of the goods were stolen. The raid was over in less than a minute.
“Yeah,” sighed Freddy, seemingly unfazed, though, his associate clearly shaken. “They come through here from time to time.” The police van continued its sweep down Leticia Street, a reminder to some or all doing business on the open street, that they weren’t welcome.
I asked Daniel why the informal sector doesn’t organize to gain recognition, acceptance and protection from the authorities. “It’s too difficult,” he rued “I would like to, but I have a business to run and a family to feed.”
Besides, he noted, many who operate informally have no incentive to organize more formally. Doing so would force them to safely dispose hazardous, non-functioning components, thus incurring costs where they currently have none (e.g. Ricardo’s dilemma with disposing CRTs). Finding ways to help the informal sector offset or absorb the cost of safe disposal would retain its valuable role in advancing product reuse while also mitigating vulnerabilities.
A Formal Sector Emerges
A few days later, across town in Los Olivos, Lima’s industrial zone, Marco and I stood behind an unassuming steel door waiting for it to open. Joyce Vallejos, manager at Peru Green, a new electronics recycling facility greeted us with a smile.
In 2012, Peru passed an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law such that electronics manufacturers must now pay a fee based on their market share of annual sales to collect and recycle used products. This law, which is similarly in effect across different states in the U.S. and more comprehensively in Europe with the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive, has given rise to a new crop of recycling facilities in Lima. Formal recyclers maintain contracts with institutions to manage their end-of-life electronic assets and serve periodic municipal residential electronics collection events.
Upon entering the facility, a giant flow chart explains how electronics are safely collected and recycled. Workers covered in protective gear work methodically with pneumatic tools to dismantle and separate product components, not unlike how Señora Dona dismantled personal printers with her bare hands and a screwdriver on Leticia Street.
We wandered through Peru Green’s spotless facility past the rows of neatly organized giant cardboard boxes, many shrink wrapped and waiting for processing. Others spilled over with circuit board or cables waiting to be exported. ‘Recycling’ in Peru refers to the dismantling and separation of components. Few, if any, facilities in the country have the capacity to shred or smelt the materials down to the commodity level. Once components are reduced to level of circuit boards and cables, recyclers export them to countries with capability to re-engineer them or further process them, namely the US, Europe, and China.
Reuse: Lost Opportunity?
The circuit boards, chips, and cables in the boxes destined for export at formal recycling facilities mirrored the components that refurbishers like Aldair kept stocked in their workshops. But the formal sector cannot utilize these circuit boards for reuse, and lose out on potentially commanding a higher price for them in lieu of exporting them.
“It’s in our contract that we have to recycle, no reuse is permitted.” said C.G., a manager at San Antonio Recycling, another formal recycler across town in Lima. “We can’t have our customers finding their products on Leticia Street after they have given them to us to manage,” he added, citing concerns with data sensitivity.
Commercial customers in Peru are responsible for wiping from their devices before contracting with recyclers, but this is changing as formal recyclers are developing capabilities to include data destruction as part of asset management offering.
That the formal sector is collecting the same material as the informal sector highlights a growing rift, where both are competing for access to used electronics. In speaking with workers in both the informal and formal sectors, I noticed that these two actor groups operated in worlds apart, with little appetite for collaboration. For now, there is enough material to go around, but when volumes grow, lack of coordination may signal missed opportunities, namely the chance to create jobs and access technology within Peru. As those in the informal sector improve their skills, some may join the formal sector, but many will likely stay in the informal sector. From what I could see, Peru’s biggest challenge in improving sound recycling is to link the cachinero to safe end-of-life management and disposal of non-valuable parts. When the worlds remain apart, forging such connections become more difficult and unlikely.
Exports Happen Anyway
Recent research demonstrates that e-scrap not only flows from industrialized countries (i.e. U.S. and EU) to less developed economies–which has dominated the e-waste narrative for over a decade–but that it also flows back north from less industrialized southern economies or sideways to similar economies, as evidenced by the bales of cables and giant cartons of circuit boards at Peru Green and San Antonio destined for overseas processing. In the last decade, policymakers, NGOs, manufacturers and recyclers have developed certification schemes–namely R2 managed by the Sustainable Electronics Recycling Initiative (SERI) and e-Stewards, managed by the Basel Action Network— to ensure sound recycling practices. Certification to e-Stewards prohibits recyclers, mostly in the U.S., from exporting material to places like China, where unsafe recycling practices have been documented. But in Peru, due to its lack of materials processing infrastructure, exports happen anyway, both to well known EU-based recyclers that maintain globally recognized facilities, and to recyclers in China, where the end processing capability is often less transparent. As such, circumstances in Peru now point to the need for greater transparency on how material will be recycled once it leaves its borders. All countries who must export material to those with the capacity to do so should understand how e-scrap will be recycled, bolstering the need for international capacity-building around safe processing standards.
Dynamics we see in Lima’s informal and formal sectors are likely not unique to Peru. They provide insight into the changes needed to create more sustainable electronics collection, refurbishment and recycling systems on both a local and global level. They also raise new questions and continue to highlight dilemmas policymakers have long struggled to resolve.
For example, under what circumstances would electronics manufacturers consider maintaining an inventory of parts for legacy models to improve prospects for reuse? What assurances could spur them to view secondary markets as an opportunity to build brand loyalty among customers who will purchase new products as their incomes rise? What is needed to develop a systemic approach that can shore up qualified refurbishers to become authorized to repair products, similar to how Microsoft’s authorized refurbisher program functions? What market conditions would incentivize manufacturers to design products that can remain compatible with the needs of future secondary customers by accommodating a future technology at the component level?
At the local level, how can the informal and formal sectors be incentivized to work collaboratively, ensuring that certain materials are safely recycled at end of life without cannibalizing the role of the informal sector in driving more refurbishment? What socio-political dynamics would need to be addressed to engender more trust across the formal and informal sectors or such that the informal sector has easier pathways to organize itself? Can the EPR fees be used to cover CRT glass processing or processing of other components that have lost resale value and present a hazard when not properly disposed?
Given technological constraints among Peru’s formal recyclers, where do the biggest global opportunities lie, geographically, for shoring up certification of sound recycling practices? In countries where formal certification is less realistic, due to cost constraints and other barriers, what streamlined best practices are most viable for both the formal and informal sectors to adopt?
Answers to these questions can help fine-tune a vibrant electronics reuse and recycling system that persists in both the visible and hidden corners of the world.
Verena Radulovic has worked with the electronics sector for over a decade on efforts to improve its environmental sustainability. An independent photographer, this project is part of a personal photographic exploration of electronics reuse and recycling in different countries. More images from this project are available at http://www.vraduphotography.com/. She also currently leads the development of consumer electronic product specifications within the U.S. EPA’s ENERGY STAR program. The views expressed here are her own.