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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.

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

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.