Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Mad copper fiasco in IT (Nov11)

Copper now sells for somewhere between £4000 a tonne and £5000 a tonne depending on where you look.  That’s why it’s being stolen from telephone exchanges, from electricity stations and from railways – train disruption from copper theft is becoming nearly as common as suicides.

In IT equipment copper is common – particularly in wires.  And many of these wires are made in China.  So demand for copper in China is huge.

I’ve discovered that something really crazy is happening.   When you buy a computer or a printer in the UK, it always comes with a cable, whether you want one or not.  I’ve got lots in my office from previous machines, so I don’t need another one.  I’m not alone.  Most people end up with an excess of these mains leads.  So they chuck them out.

If we’re lucky the discarded leads will end up being recycled.  Many of them are transported to Scandinavia, where the plastic coating is melted off.  And the remaining copper is then sold back to China, to make more leads that we don’t want. Apart from being completely bonkers, there’s a significant environmental impact to all this.  Melting down the copper and plastic and all the transport, not to mention the packaging.

Crazy Copper Carousel, showing mains leads being made, not used and then heading back to China – copper wires are valuable but often wasted

I went to see an IT recycling company last week – Blackmore.IT.  Simon Barfoot, the CEO, told me about the ‘Crazy Copper Carousel’, as he called it.  And, after we left, he sent me the photo (see above) of all the stuff  along with an HP scanner.  There was, not one, but three mains leads included because it meant they could ship the product to different countries, without changing the packaging – eek.  In the same package there was also a set up CD and manuals in 9 different languages which amounted to about 300 pages in all. 
This is just one small example of how wasteful the IT industry is.   If the cost of copper, and other raw materials, isn’t getting them to change, one wonders what will.   Instead of sending me answers on a postcard – send me a tweet @juliahailes. 

I’ve been told about one solution that’s being used in Norway.   Sean Feeney, who took over as CEO of Environcom in January 2011 used to work in Scandinavia and says they are far better at reducing E-waste, than we are in the UK.   Their approach to manuals, CDs and cables is to put them in separate boxes to the computer itself.  This means that only the equipment that’s needed is actually sent to the country in question.  Hewlett Packard should get in touch and revamp their systems accordingly. 

I’ve started working with Environcom on E-waste issues.  They’re leading the way on re-use – see previous blog I’ve written about them.   

 Some key facts about copper:

  • A tonne of copper results in 300 tonnes of waste
  • 40% of copper is recycled but 99% is potentially re-usable
  • 4.4 million tonnes of copper are used each year
  • 15.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are produced from copper mining each year
  • 1.3 billion mobile phones produced each year account for 12,000 tonnes of copper
  • It’s estimated that demand for copper will outstrip supply (what’s in the ground) by 2100


Lost photos

 HP Scanner – CD, 300 pages of manual in 9 different languages and 3 mains leads containing copper
Simon Barfoot from Blackmore.it 

Some of these facts have come from ‘Reinventing the wheel – A circular economy for resource security‘ a Green Alliance Report, published in 2011. 


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