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Hal Watts visited an e-waste dump in Ghana, to observe the scavenging cycle. Here, a worker burns cables for copper.

Co.Design

A Safe And Easy Way To Mine Metals From E-Waste

Our old gadgets create millions of tons of electronic waste each year, which is hazardously recycled in impoverished countries. One U.K.-based designer aims to change the process.

We don’t often think about the final resting place of our favorite devices. But much of the electronics we throw away--computers, phones, televisions--gets illegally dumped in poverty-stricken countries like Ghana and Nigeria, which lack the infrastructure to recycle the parts efficiently. Instead, they are stripped down by hand, and some pieces are haphazardly set ablaze to extract the valuable metals within, exposing workers to harmful toxins.

Hal Watts, a designer and recent graduate of the Imperial College in London, has devised an easier, safer way to recycle copper wiring, one of the most common forms of e-waste. His device, called Esource--which started out as his final project at Imperial--includes two components: a bicycle-powered shredder that pulverizes the copper and its plastic coating into fine particles, and a sorter, which separates the copper from the plastic. The process is not only nonhazardous but also results in a 2% greater yield of pure copper.

“A lot of these people depend on burning cables as their primary income, but it’s the most health-damaging [e-waste] issue,” says Watts, who was recently nominated for design of the year by the Design Museum in London. In 2011, after becoming interested in electronic waste, he spent a week at an e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana, where he observed the burning process firsthand and talked to the copper exporters. (Ironically, most of the copper is sent back to Europe, which, according to the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, illegally exports up to 75%, or 8 million tons, of its e-waste.)

As water is poured over the spinning spiral, which is powered by a pump on the bike, copper particles float up to the middle.

After his trip, Watts prototyped about 20 different versions of Esource. In the current iteration, a worker folds out a stand on the bicycle and places the wires and cables into an attached shredder. As he pedals, the shredder grinds up the cables into bits of copper and plastic, which are then placed in the sorter, made from a light aluminum material. As water is poured over the rotating spiral, the materials are separated by density, and the copper floats slowly to the center of the spiral and into the pan.

Watts was inspired by a similar, age-old process called gold-panning used by gold miners to sift out the mineral from clumps of dirt and gravel. “To build something cheaply, you often have to go back and look at older technologies,” he says. With a grant from the Wates Family Enterprise Trust to continue his project, Watts will be taking another trip to Ghana in April to test-trial the device, and to court local manufacturers to make Esource. He also plans to make the product affordable and easy to adopt by making its design open-sourced.

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  • WR3A

    Good article except for the mis-statement about 75% of the "e-waste" being imported.  That "fact" was created out of thin air by an anti-export watchdog in 2002. While they meant well, it's really demeaning to the actual African importers.  A 2011 comprehensive study by the UN Environmental Program re-affirmed what FairTradeRecycling.org and others have been saying.   A study of 209 imported containers found 70% working and another 15% were repaired in Africa.   (By comparison, imports of new electronics to Wal-Mart in the USA have 11% breakage and warranty return, by comparison).  While the "e-waste" burning was real, the "waste" burned for copper at the landfill was largely used productively for years by Africans, who generate most of their own waste from cities.   The connection to the importers, they found, was from trade-ins... Africans who want to buy a newer used TV or stereo will try to bring in an old one for trade in.   The UK and USA environmentalists who travelled to Africa thought the junk was imported, but most of the imports were reused, and most of the junk was generated by Africans.  It's a bit like if I find used cars at the Toyota dealer and I conclude that Japan is exporting junk cars to the USA.   The moral:  TALK TO THE AFRICAN GEEKS BEFORE ACCUSING THEM.   The "e-Waste" campaign meant well but it turned into racial profiling, African businesspeople were falsely accused and arrested, the UK and USA greens made a lot of money from pictures of children and never shared a dime with the kids... an apology is in order.    For a copy of the 2011 UN Report visit wr3a.org.