Here’s a ‘beautiful circular economy model’ from emerging markets

Plumes of smoke rise from a mountain of electronics as untrained waste pickers burn motherboards and monitors to salvage gold and copper. Such an image has taken hold in the popular imagination, sparking distress for toxic, high-tech trash endangering workers and polluting  ecosystems throughout the developing world.

Such concern is important. However, that picture obscures another one behind the scenes of a positive, circular flow of materials and ingenuity, which offers lessons that businesses in the developed world should follow, author Adam Minter said Tuesday at the GreenBiz Circularity 21 virtual event. The Bloomberg columnist and investigative reporter shared a vision of homegrown entrepreneurs engaged in vibrant, global circular economies in which they disassemble, rework and resell high-demand electronics that might otherwise be destroyed in their original markets.

“So long as developed economies, the person who throws something away, gets to say what is waste, we are going to miss the opportunity to look at emerging markets where they have looked at waste differently, (and) see reuse, repair and other options,” said Minter, author of the books “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” Minter came to an insider’s appreciation for trash honestly; scrap peddling was a family profession dating back at least to his rag-collecting great-grandfather, a refugee from Russia.

The hope

Among the heroes Minter holds up is Robin Ingenthron, who runs American Retroworks’ Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, Vermont. The “fair trade recycling” business seeks to make the most of electronics at their highest and best use by prioritizing repair or reuse.

Minter said he knows of many other U.S. companies starting to collaborate overseas in this kind of work. They are providing parts that are hard to find in low-income nations including in Asia and Africa, to entrepreneurs who reverse engineer and reinvent digital gear. 

“The good news is that those businesses are taking their cue from the circular economies in emerging markets — places like Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, China, Malaysia — and creating a more circular economy that’s more inclusive, that provides opportunities to people beyond just our immediate horizons but deepens the engagement of everybody in what is a global sustainable movement,” he said.

The trope

Widespread reports about subsistence pickers creating e-waste trash heaps in China have been perpetuated by reports for years, including a popular 60 Minutes segment in 2008, “The Electronic Wasteland,” said Minter, who was reporting in the region around that time.

“But I also knew enough about the recycling industry to know that at least from a business perspective, it didn’t make a lot of sense for somebody in China to spend money importing monitors, pay the taxes on them, pay the bribes on them, and then still extract value via the raw materials,” he said. “The money wasn’t there. So I started looking around, and the first thing I knew was, you don’t go looking in someone’s backyard to figure out what somebody is doing with waste; you need to go in their warehouse.”

Minter learned that instead of monitors being gutted and tossed into trash piles on a mass scale, they were being taken apart in large-scale factories for refurbishment and resale.

You don’t go looking in someone’s backyard to figure out what somebody is doing with waste; you need to go in their warehouse.

“Now, there (is) certainly pollution associated with the trade, but there is also wonderful circularity,” he said. “It’s quite possible that if you were using a CRT, an old monitor, like you would use in the 2000s, and you bought it from a store that sells white label, it was a reused monitor.”

However, the frame of reference of many Western journalists and NGOs is based on one way of thinking about waste being exported to China, he added. “And that’s a pity because it not only had a huge influence on how regulators and regular Americans and corporations thought about this waste, but it had a real impact on how China could reduce its own footprint in terms of waste pollution, and other externalities.”

What’s happening in a place like China’s southern port city, Guangzhou, is more complex than its reputation as the world’s biggest electronics graveyard, Minter said. Most unbranded, battery-operated toys made in that region, for example, contain chips harvested secondhand from first-world e-waste imports. Minter also described tremendous technical innovation at play in Shenzen, where a vast chip market enables refurbishment of smartphones.

Those businesses are taking their cue from the circular economies in emerging markets, places like Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, China, Malaysia and creating a more circular economy that’s more inclusive.

More than 75,000 miles away in Ghana, 95 percent of electronics are sold secondhand, he said. And although the commercial area of Agbogbloshie outside of the city of Accra has the reputation as an e-waste graveyard, it’s mostly an automobile dump. After all, high duties would make shipping container-size loads of e-waste cost-prohibitive, Minter said, and documentaries that purportedly show burning electronics are really depicting harness wire from cars and failed power lines.

How are Ghanaians finding value in e-waste? Minter described how Oluu Orga, a businessman from the city of Tamale, learned after high school how to fix things at Agbogbloshie. Now he’s importing old PCs, advertising them on WhatsApp, and reselling them to households, hospitals, schools and even retailers. The highly profitable business hinges upon a framework of seeing something like a flatscreen TV as an “aggregation of potentially reusable parts,” Minter said.

A lack of available parts in Tamale, however, poses a struggle for repair technicians. Years ago Orga’s business partner, Wahab Mohammed, traveled to Ingenthron’s U.S. company and returned to Ghana with suitcase-loads of television parts. More recently, the two companies have met via Zoom to review the available components.

“Now, there (is) certainly pollution associated with the trade, but there is also wonderful circularity.

“Again, it’s an instance, and a very good one, of a Western developed business looking to emerging markets that define waste differently and saying, how can that model improve our circularity?” Minter said. “We don’t do that enough in North America, in my opinion.”

He depicted a multilayered global ecosystem that empowers entrepreneurs and resourceful engineers. For example, in Ghana’s repair capital, Kumasi, a repair technician union, has 1,000 members. Good Point Recycling’s website recognizes that “overseas, repair of technology is the equivalent of an engineering job in the USA.”

“Again, it’s a beautiful circular economy model,” Minter said. “But it all depends on who gets to define the waste. If those [circuit] boards arrive at a recycler in North America, they’re going to be defined as waste and they’re not going to be reused in Ghana or anywhere else.”

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