On your bike: Brit designer reimagines e-waste processing

A British designer has come up with a very low-tech approach to processing e-waste.

Hal Watts, a graduate of Imperial College, London, believes the process can be improved with an old bicycle and a contraption he calls Esource. The idea is simple, Esource is basically a pedal-powered e-waste shredder. It pulverizes copper and plastic into fine particles and at the bottom it features a sorter to separate the two. The process is environmentally friendly and it even provides a two percent increase in copper yield.

Most e-waste processing is done in third world countries, but “e-waste processing” is just a fancy and politically correct way of describing impoverished people stripping down waste by hand, often setting it on fire to extract the valuable metals. It is a very hazardous affair, as it exposes the workers to harmful toxins and pollutes the environment.

“A lot of these people depend on burning cables as their primary income, but it’s the most health-damaging [e-waste] issue,” Watts told Fast Company.

Watts visited an e-waste dump in Ghana while researching his pet project. He observed the burning process first hand and talked to local copper exporters. Most of the copper is exported back to Europe, which dumps it in Ghana, often illegally. A British environmental agency estimates Europe exports 75 percent, or 8 million tons, of its e-waste illegally.

However, trying to introduce modern technology to an industry based in some of the poorest countries on the planet simply wouldn’t work. That’s why Watts settled for a low-tech approach that can be built and operated with limited resources. His device requires just a bit of water to separate the plastic from the metal, and anyone with a blowtorch and access to a scrap heap should be able to build one. Watts was inspired by old gold-panning devices, which have been around for centuries.

“To build something cheaply, you often have to go back and look at older technologies,” he said.

Watts plans to try out his contraption when he visits Ghana in April.