Recycle Rare Earths at Home, with a Screwdriver.

Let’s call this a lesson in avoiding absolutes.

Below, two versions of a component in every hard disk drive. The circled components – the valuable, important components – are magnets of the (capital R, capital E) Rare Earth variety. That is to say, they are magnets manufactured, in part, by adding a dash of the mysterious elements that my colleagues in the media have rendered quasi-mystical, and the Chinese have rendered more valuable via (reportedly, export bans). I show them, in part, to clear up the mystery. So here, dear readers, circled in red, are examples of the rare earth actuator magnets present in pretty much every hard drive on the planet (stay in your seats, please).

I bring them up, also, because, based upon some of the things that have been written about rare earths over the last few months, one might have the impression that the recycling and recovery of rare earths – in part to deal with Chinese export restrictions – is something that requires high-tech. But, of course, based upon the above photo, you can pretty much judge for yourself: the only technology necessary to recover the rare earth magnets in a hard drive (how many hundreds of millions?) is a screw-driver. And that’s precisely how it’s done in one part of Malaysia, where this photo was taken: workers disassemble hard drives, pull out the magnets, and return them to the manufacturers. And the workers do this for roughly US$300/month – a more than sufficient living wage in that region (but not, I’ll admit, for someone who eats organic in San Francisco). Continue reading

The best scrap blogger in the world.

Tonight the staff of Shanghai Scrap is taking a break from writing over-heated posts about wikileaks to pause and appreciate what we now consider the greatest scrap recycling blog of all time: the Good Point Ideas Blog, authored by Robin Ingenthron – founder of the World Reuse Repair and Recycling Association, and owner of Good Point Recycling/American Retroworks, a US-based e-waste recycling company that proudly engages in legal electronic “waste” exports to the developed world (read the blog to learn about how he does that).

I bring Robin and his blog up for several reasons. First, Shanghai Scrap was, in part, established as a platform to promote some of my writing on the global waste and recycling trade that’s typically not available to those who don’t subscribe to trade journals, but who might take an interest in the subject. The truth is, my scrap posting has become more and more rare over the years, but I still like to do it and, logically, I take an interest in other scrap bloggers (of which there are two, now – me, and Robin). Second, Robin’s blog is a tour de force if you’re at all interested if and how the planet has any chance to process and handle the massive amounts of waste being generated on it, daily – especially electronic waste like Norelco shavers and Dell computers. How are we supposed to throw those things away when we’re done with them? What are the ethics? Third, Robin has been on a bit of a tear lately, posting some 259 blogs in 2010, most quite lengthy, and all on the recycling and re-use trade. That, in itself, deserves notice. And fourth, despite the fact that Robin’s blog has existed for half of a decade, I’ve only recently become aware of it. I need to make up for that. Continue reading

Where [some of] Hong Kong’s old computers go to die.

Below, a stack of old PCs, monitors, and printers that, at one time, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, new. Yesterday, at the time that I took this photo, they had just arrived in bulk at a Hong Kong warehouse where they were to be sorted and – for the most part – disassembled and recycled.

The warehouse is owned and operated by the Li Tong Group, the company designated to operate Hong Kong’s municipal computer recycling program (they also handle electronics recycling for private clients – including Apple, and its entire Asia Pacific recycling program). And yesterday Li Tong walked me through their EcoPark warehouse, home to the municipal program (client confidentiality prevented them from showing locations that handle waste generated by private clients), and allowed me to photograph most of it (understandably, proprietary processes were off-limits to the camera – but not my eyes).

I’m going to post a few of those images, for two reasons: 1) searches for “waste electronics” and “Hong Kong” typically generate horrific images of polluted, unsafe workshops where workers risk their health to extract gold from circuit boards. No doubt, that’s how electronics are usually recycled in Asia, but the situation is beginning to shift a bit, and Li Tong is at the head of the Asia Pacific pack. So, hopefully these images reveal another side; and 2) Just as many American hunters believe that meat eaters should, at some point in their lives, should kill and dress their steak, I – a non-hunter – believe that every techie should have to face up to what happens to that old monitor/PC/printer/scanner/iPod after it gets tossed to the curb. Continue reading

What a Difference A Day Makes in Ningbo.

In the interest of expanding the English-language discussion of China’s air quality situation beyond Beijing, I give you two photos taken, roughly 24 hours apart, from the 27th floor window of a hotel in downtown Ningbo. Let’s begin with yesterday.

Next, today’s image (that’s my shirt shimmering in the foreground glass – sorry).

China to Consider Lifting Ban on Imported Electronic Wastes

This afternoon an influential leader in China’s multi-billion dollar recycling industry gave strong indications that China will soon loosen its ban on the importation of waste electronic devices such as computer circuit boards. The import of such devices is a sensitive issue in China, particularly due to the intense foreign media interest on so-called “toxic villages” where these devices have long been smuggled and recycled in informal workshops.

In prepared marks delivered at an industry conference attended in Ningbo, China, Wang Gongmin, the chairman of China’s Non-Ferrous Metals Recycling Association asked that the ban on imported waste circuit boards be lifted. CMRA has close government ties, and often consults with government in Beijing and China’s provinces on the recycling industry and laws related to it. Wang, meanwhile, was part of a team of three who drafted language on solid wastes for the 11th Five Year Plan, and he was a leader of the expanded team that prepared language for the upcoming 12th Five Year Plan. The new plan does not call for lifting the ban, but rather speaks in general principles and policy goals. Wang’s speech, however, was quite specific. Below, the official English translation provided to attendees:

We will add to the variety of and expand the scale of imported scrap metals. On the one hand, scrap home appliance, circuit board scraps, [and] scrapped cars are all valuable renewable resources. On the other hand, recycling technology has matured, and the processing shall not result in secondary pollution. But those products are all on the list of prohibited goods. It is suggested that relevant departments should make policies to approve the import of such products.

Attending Wang’s speech were leading officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Commerce, Customs, and AQSIQ.

In 2010, China began the roll-out of a long-delayed program to funnel domestically generated electronic waste to trusted, environmentally-sound recyclers. Among industry observers, it has long been assumed that a successful domestically-run recycling program would ultimately pave the way for China to lift its ban on imports. Today’s announcement was much earlier than many expected, especially due to the fact that there are still many questions and problems to be answered with the Chinese domestic program.

Wang announcement also suggests that at least some officials in China are reconsidering the country’s commitment to the Basel Convention on Transboundary Wastes, a 1989 treaty that prohibits the export of hazardous wastes to developing countries. In developed countries, the processes used to recycle circuit board scrap and other hazardous materials are expensive, but relatively safe. In recent years, China’s nascent e-recycling industry has imported and modified some of these processes on a trial basis, and with greater and lesser success, in anticipation of the 2010 domestic recycling program. Though no breakthroughs have been reported, it is undeniably the case that developed world e-recycling methods can be utilized in China for smaller costs and greater profit. On background, some Chinese recycling industry figures argue that circuit boards cannot be considered hazardous – and thus, not subject to Basel – if they’re exported to China and recycled using means demanded by Western environmentalists.

The Dancing Beauty and Other Tales of Carp[/crab] Fishing in China, pt. II

[Pt. I of this multi-part series, in which the blogger goes shopping for tackle at what amounts to a giant carp fishing mall, can be found here.]

A friend from Minnesota, a walleye fisherman of some repute, once told me: “The only thing that comes close to the thrill of catching a fish is not catching a fish. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t get to fish with me.” I know exactly what he meant and no, it has nothing to do with six packs in the cooler on the floor of your boat. Instead he was talking about anticipation, and the itchy possibility that the mundane routines of daily like might just run into something wilder – with a little luck and patience. It’s the kind of anticipation that leads experienced fishermen to sit on a boat in the heat of the mid-day sun, lines in the water, knowing that – under such conditions – they’re about as likely to catch a blue whale as a walleye or a bass. And it’s just that kind of anticipation which – along with growing wealth, leisure time, automobile ownership, and restlessness – drives the quickening growth of recreational fishing in China.

Travel China’s cities and I guarantee that – if you come across an urban creek, river, or canal – you’ll eventually find somebody with a line in it, no matter how polluted, fishing for pleasure. Below, a photo of a fisherman beside the creek that runs through East China Normal University in Shanghai (courtesy of China writer, historian, and angler, Paul French, author of the great China Rhyming blog).

Alas, I think it no exaggeration to claim that China’s urban waterways are polluted and over-fished (if there are fish in them, at all), and so – for the serious angler – it’s necessary to look to the Chinese countryside for quality fishing (a topic about which I’ll have much more to say in coming months). At least, that’s what I’ve long thought. But curiosity, along with urban restlessness, occasionally gets the better of me, and so over the last year I’ve taken to asking around Shanghai for quality fresh water fishing (not stocked pond fishing). In other words: is it possible to fish quality, wild freshwater fish in a freshwater fish loving (and eating) city? The answer, I’d long been told, is no. But then, in March, a good friend called to tell me that a friend of his had mentioned a clean lake in the Shanghai outskirts filled with big, wild carp. Continue reading

The Dancing Beauty and other tales of carp fishing [equipment] in China, Pt. 1.

According to my sources, there are over 20,000 fishing tackle shops in China – a commercial phenomenon that defies many foreign stereotypes about China, not least of which is that you can’t find any good fishing in China. Over the next couple of months, and in a few different venues, I’m going to do my best to overturn that stereotype. But, more than that, I hope to show something different, and more positive, as well: that a growing Chinese middle-class, outfitted with spare-time, automobiles, and a desire to get out of the cities, is embracing fishing and other outdoor sports. Regular readers know that I’m loathe to draw sweeping conclusions from limited data, but in the case of fishing in China, I will say this: I’ve never met a fisherman who doesn’t care about blue skies and clean water. From such things, conservation movements have been born.

So how to measure the scale of fishing in China? I am not (yet) ready to give up the location of my favorite Chinese fishing holes. But, as a public service, I am willing to give up the location of the largest fishing tackle hub that I’ve ever encountered outside of the United States (hello, Cabela’s). So: grab yourself a taxi out to Putuo District, and direct the driver to the traffic jammed corner of Jinshajiang and Jingyang roads. There you’ll find a block-long, soot-streaked, pink tile building that – on its first floor – houses more than two dozen fishing tackle shops.

After the page jump, we visit some shops, buy my new/first carp fishing rod, and enjoy a quick chat with the brother/sister team that owns and runs Fengye Fishing Tackle. Continue reading