Sunflowers in Shandong

Dave Wilson discovers that electrical waste is being shipped to China for recycling. UK researchers might have an answer to the problem, but it’s only half the answer.

<b>’Say hello to everything you’ve left behind. It’s even more a part of your life now that you can’t touch it.’- The nurse who loved me (A Perfect Circle).</b>

Just the other week, I turned on the TV in my bedroom to the surprising sight of a BBC reporter in China. That, in itself, of course, wasn’t really all that extraordinary. Because, as well all know, of course, the BBC has reporters scattered all over the earth and to find one in China… (Get on with it! – Ed.).

No, what was came as a bit of a shock was the fact that the journalist in question was standing next to a pile of consumer electronic waste that had somehow made its way to that faraway land from the EU for the purpose of recycling. To make his point, he hauled out old monitor and mobile phone casings with markings that clearly indicated that the electronic garbage had been imported from EU countries that included Germany and, horror of horrors, the UK.

And then, to make matters worse, we were given an insight into the lives of several rather unfortunate Chinese chaps who were engaged in the process of heating PCBs over what looked like open fires in order to prize off ‘valuable’ chips from the PCBs that had previously been removed from the insides of the unloved equipment. And we were told in no uncertain terms about the variety of medical problems that these foreign fellas had contracted as a result. Most unpleasant.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to discover that those clever folks at the University of Warwick have now come up with a novel idea that could prevent this sort of waste from travelling so far in the future.

And they are doing it by enticing consumers to recycle discarded mobile telephones by burying them and watching them transform into flowers.

How have then done this, I hear you ask? Well, the Warwick team, led by Dr. Kerry Kirwan, have worked with hi tech materials company PVAXX Research and Development and Motorola to create a mobile telephone case or cover that can simply be placed in compost to disintegrate and turn into a flower.

To make this happen, the researchers have made two changes to the case or cover of the mobile phone. First, they’ve developed a special formulation of PVAXX Research and Development’s biodegradable polymer range that biodegrades easily in compost. And second, they’ve created a small transparent window in the case or cover in which a seed can be embedded. The seed is visible to mobile phone user but will not germinate until the phone cover or case is recycled. For the first prototype telephones they have used dwarf sunflower seeds.

Smashing stuff. And it’s certainly a step in the right direction, that’s for sure.

But will this be enough to prevent these ubiquitous devices from being exported to China? No. Because, while the outside of the phone might be easy to recycle, the insides certainly aren’t.

And until the clever clogs at Warwick can figure out a way to recycle embedded microprocessors, memory, RF circuitry and PCBs, then I think the only result of the exercise might be that we start to see a lot of sunflowers blooming in Shandong.