E-Scrap News exclusive: The rise of electronics recycling in Brazil
By Jake Thomas, Resource Recycling
Brazil has arrived. In recent decades, the Latin American country's economy has grown to become the world's sixth largest and boasts a burgeoning middle class hungry for new electronics. Now the country is confronting what to do with all the waste that accompanies its new-found prosperity by enacting a law that regulates how certain products can be disposed, including electronics. E-Scrap News spoke with Marcus Oliveira, the sustainability director of the Brazilian Association of Electric and Electronic Recycling Companies, at the 2012 E-Scrap Conference in Dallas about the challenges ahead.
ESN: The Brazilian federal government recently enacted a new law covering many materials. I was hoping you could tell us about that.
MO: The new legislation is not specific, it's a very wide range of all solid waste, from house waste to electronics and pesticides and packaging for chemicals, everything is under that legislation.
But some of the wastes are under an article that says they must have a reverse logistics system. One of them is electronics, but it doesn't say how to do it. They created a task group with several representatives in the industry. So this industry must agree on how the reverse logistics system will work and who has what responsibility. This process must come with documents of agreement signed by everybody in the meeting, and the government will sign some kind of decree enforcing this to be done. But there's a possibility that the industry doesn't arrive at the same point. If the industry doesn't find a solution, the government signs a decree and everyone must follow it.
What we already know is that the main responsibility is on the manufacturers. The manufacturers say that the responsibility to receive the material is on the retailer, not on them, because they say they don't sell directly to people, they sell to distributors or retailers. You know it's difficult because in the legislation it says retailers must give the material back to manufacturers, but how can you give your material back to the manufacturer if you have everything mixed? You have to sort it out before you send it. So the manufacturer says, I can only receive my own material; I cannot recycle everyone's material. So it's the retailer saying, I can't sort all the material. So there are all these points of view that are being defended, but I think pretty soon we'll have something like the very same idea.
ESN: What do foreign manufacturers operating in Brazil think about this law?
MO: Most manufactures are positive about the new law, but they are afraid of the cost. Most of them are not stepping ahead of each other. They are not seeing recycling as opportunity. They are seeing it as a cost. They don't want to take the first step when a competitor isn't, making them less competitive. That's the biggest issue.
ESN: So are there any collection targets or will that be worked out?
MO: There are no collection targets at the beginning at least. The manufacturers are saying we recycle 100 percent of what we receive. They say they cannot go to peoples' houses and put a gun to their head and say give me back the product. How can I reach the target if I cannot force people to give the material back? Before they set targets, they need to work on the infrastructure of the system because there are not many companies in Brazil working on recycling.
Logistics is pretty bad because most of the licensed companies are located in the south of Brazil. Sao Paulo is in the southeast, where most companies are. There are 3 millions square miles of country, so there's no point in bringing it from the very north to recycle it in Sao Paulo. It doesn't make any sense economically and environmentally because you're producing more carbon dioxide in transporting it than recycling it.
The goal of the government is to have the recycling facilities close to the collection points. They don't want the material to travel so much. But we don't have these people working in those cities yet. So there's good opportunity in developing new enterprises in those locations.
ESN: What about the actual processing of electronics? Does Brazil have the processing infrastructure?
MO: No. Most recycling is hand dismantling. In our company, we have automatic tools to dismantle. There's no shredding process. Our labor is not very expensive, although it's becoming more expensive. Especially in the less developed areas it's very cheap. The technology is very expensive, so buying a shredding line for electronics costs millions and millions of dollars and that's a very difficult investment at the moment because we're not sure how much waste will come into our facilities and labor is cheap.
ESN: With hand dismantling are there limits to that approach?
MO: Yes. CRTs are the main concern. The CRTs are almost impossible to process by hand and there are many health and safety issues.
ESN: Is there much export of e-scrap from Brazil?
MO: The only exports are printed circuit boards. Circuit boards are exported for smelting. Brazil doesn't have any smelters for processing or recovering precious metals, but that's not a big issue because there's a good market. So, most of Brazil's boards go to Europe, Japan or Canada. They're being well handled. Most of the other materials — metals, plastic, glass — are processed in Brazil. We have a big recycling value for those types of products. Brazil is the biggest recycler of aluminum in the whole world.
ESN: How is outreach and education with electronics recycling going in Brazil?
MO: Most of the people know they cannot drop electronics in the regular bin or trash. But they don't know what to do if they have five to 10 cell phones. They don't know where to drop it. There are some people who are trying to find information about it, but there's not much education on how to treat this. Batteries are a big problem in Brazil because we use lots of them, regular alkaline batteries. The more developed the areas are the more aware of this problem. The less developed areas in north and northeast are less informed. But it's getting better all the time. People are trying to learn.
This new legislation — we think, we hope — will be a very big step for Brazil in attaining environmental responsibility. We have a big potential to become a very important sustainable country to lead this process.
ESN: A lot of Brazil's recycling and waste infrastructure relies on informal scavengers. Have electronics been something they've handled?
MO: That's a big issue because the new legislation wants to use those people in the system, but we know that electronics recycling is much different from recycling a beer can. It doesn't make sense to pick up a large TV and take it somewhere where they charge you to take it. It's a special kind of waste. So that's already a common sense in the discussion that we cannot use scavengers walking around picking up recyclables to treat e-waste. We need a better solution than that.
ESN: How much e-scrap is currently being recycled?
MO: It's difficult to know, because most companies don't want to make their information public. There are only a few companies that are fully compliant or licensed. So, it's only a guess how much is being recycled. But based on the research for the next two years, the potential for recycling is about 1 million tons based on the quantity of what's being sold and the life cycle of each product. Next year, it's growing maybe 20 percent. But this is only based on production and not historic inventory in peoples' homes. There was a study that said it was even more in peoples' houses.
ESN: Is there much of a market for refurbished computers?
MO: There is a market for refurbishing, but it's not very well seen by the manufacturers. Most recyclers don't do refurbishing. There's a big black market for computers in Brazil. People in recycling don't want to mess up their business with this kind of market. They don't want to feed the black market with their products.
But I think if we have a whole system, we can manage and create a very good business because there are markets for refurbished material in Brazil. Even Brazil being the third biggest market, there are people who can't access new computers and they could buy a refurbished computer for much cheaper.
ESN: What would say the biggest obstacle is in bringing more formality to Brazil's e-scrap recycling?
MO: The main thing is infrastructure. Most of the companies are centralized in one part of the country. Costs are an issue as well, because Brazil is a huge country. Logistics are very expensive and there are some small things in the legislation that makes it more difficult. We don't want to make so much bureaucracy that it makes the whole system more difficult. The electronics industry could be a successful case that could be reproduced in many other industries. It's a good opportunity for developing new enterprises. There are many business opportunities because we need this market to spread and not be concentrated in Sao Paulo. We have more cell phones than people. We need to reach this material in peoples' homes and bring it back to recycling.