back to article Danube sludge peril: Brown trouser time or not?

Millions of tonnes of “red sludge” flowing into the Danube: sounds like Hungary's got something of an environmental problem, doesn't it? And indeed they do, but it's a short-term one, not the long-term disaster that the likes of Greenpeace (hey, surprise!) are telling us all it is. It isn't actually “red sludge”, the technical …

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Boffin

Iron-y

I heard that they are dumping fertiliser into the river along with clay in an attempt to reduce the pH of the rivers.

Reminds me of introducing cane toads into australia to stop the beetles eating the sugar crop.

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Resource consumption

"Which brings us to a point economists keep trying to tell environmentalists: humans don't consume resources, humans create resources by inventing the technologies to make use of them."

This is, of course, nonsense. Humans and all other living things clearly do consume resources (unless we think that, say, the amount of iron ore in the earth is infinite). The point is, rather, that the definition of "resource" changes with time depending on the available (and economically viable) technology that is available.

All human activity (with a very few exceptions) simply changes the form of the matter of this planet to greater or lesser extents, rather than creating or destroying it. But that change can make the 'resource' involved siginificantly less available to those who follow.

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nonsense

Some resources may not be consumed (a sandy beach at a resort), but some are (if you burn oil it's gone), and others may be scattered so that they can't be reused at a reasonable cost (there is a little bit of gold in most things like cell phones, cameras, computers... but the cost of getting it back out at the end of it's useful life is more then it's worth).

Economists are famous for defining a resource as something THEY can make money from while ignoring any external costs.

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Anonymous Coward

I define thee

Economists have much in common with environmentalists. They both make up a load of crap as they go along. And I dislike them both.

We shouldn't invent fancy math to prove that being utter selfish bastards "is economical" and we shouldn't be hysterically shouting around unfounded or even provably untrue propaganda. Neither economics nor environmentalism? What I want then? A little of both, a boatload of neither. I think we ought to take good care of the earth we have, and see it as a custodianship for our kids' kids' kids' and so on. Least we could do, really.

So yes, do go ahead and figure out how to make waste useful again. Even if it isn't quite "economical" right now. Do keep an eye out for not making the cure worse than the ailment, too. And don't keep on spending subsidies just because "it is green", especially not if doing so pushing out other promising technologies. Do, however, keep an eye on the total short and long term costs, and calculate them in full, including "creating" the resources for the process and cleaning up the mess afterward. It's not difficult, really. But it does require elbow grease, clue, vision, and realism. That's, like, hard, man.

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Happy

You Sure?

"there is a little bit of gold in most things like cell phones, cameras, computers... but the cost of getting it back out at the end of it's useful life is more then it's worth"

What are Envirofone, Mazuma et al doing with the old phones people send in? I'm not too sure but I seem to remember hearing that the yield of recoverable gold in 1 ton of used cell phones was something like 50 times that in a ton of good Ore? (although this could just be complete Bollocks!)

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Anonymous Coward

critical understanding fail

You missed the point

If we did not have the technologies that require oil (plastic/petrol/tarmac) oil would not be a resource it would just be black sludge that we don't need.

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Not that simple

It would not be worth it if they had to pay to collect the phones and only received the value of the gold.

There are now laws that require companies to deal with their end of life products, and fees to pay for recycling them paid at the time of purchase. People are told not to chuck it in the trash but to take/send it some place for recycling. The cost of breaking up the phones is subsidised so it's worth doing (and they don't end up in landfill or trash mountains in India or Africa).

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Stop

Missing one of the stages

The phone collection companies pay more for working phones as they can sell them on in countries where it is more important to have a phone at all than to have the latest greatest gadget.

I would imagine the also try and use several broken ones to make one working one, and then and only then will they recycle them for the constituent parts

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Interesting Article

Especially on the economics of reprocessing waste - I'm waiting for the day it becomes profitable to start mining landfills, personally!

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Pint

Good stuff

So basically we need to calm down, ignore the tabloids and hysterical newsheets as usual and simply get on with moping up.

Sounds likes good advice to me! I shall contemplate your wise words from a comfy seat down at the Red Lion tonight!

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Not yet.

There IS a need for some expediency right now, but most of it has been properly directed at keeping people out of harm's way, keeping the problem from spreading too much...and with keeping the stuff flowing into the Danube from being too alkaline (one tributary seems to be toast, but the effort on the Danube itself is proceeding; nothing long-term is expected as long as they keep pace). Once the immediate situation is done and dusted, everyone can take a deep breath, go, "Okay, that's over with," and start laying out the plans for dealing with the mud, which doesn't have to proceed so quickly.

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Anonymous Coward

between the lines

"as well as drowning people - as happened to some unfortunates in Hungary."

reads as "i dont care about other humans, as long as I get the'chips' for my phone"

Slightly insensitive?

"Greenpeace (hey, surprise!) "

Slightly arrogant?

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I see that a bit differently...

"as well as drowning people - as happened to some unfortunates in Hungary." reads (to me) as "similar to what happens with other types of flood, like, y'know, water."

And "Greenpeace (hey, surprise!)" is dead on - name one environmental "disaster" that Greenpeace didn't jump on as either the end of the world, or leading to the aforementioned apocalypse...

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WTF?

Arrogant towards Greenpeace?

It's really not too hard.

20 years ago I saw a demo against the use of Chlorine.

I laughed out loud and erased Greenpeace from my concerns.

Never looked back.

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Anonymous Coward

Not so obviously then

Does it read uncaring? Callous? Not to me. The article is about red mud and its properties. One of the properties is that you can drown in it. Did you know you can die under an avalanche too? Oh noes, that ebil ebil DHMO stuff struck again! Get over it already.

As to arrogant, well, if you're referring to Tim the term you're looking for is "irony". Of course greenpeace can be depended upon to do their shouty bit. You can also depend on them overstating things to the point that they must have an intern or two on the task of finding technically correct but completely irrelevant things to produce flashy terror-laden headlines with. Which, as we all know, is a very helpful thing to do in cases like this.

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Joined up thinking

If the biggest 'problem' with red sludge is the high concentration of caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), then why not mix it with some acidic waste from somewhere else to neutralise it? Maybe that would need communication, cooperation and joined up thinking......ah, no chance.

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IT Angle

All it takes

is for the acid producing process to have a leak at the same time as the red mud people

ALthough knowing humanity , they'll arrange their respective leaks 6 months apart

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Not a lot of acidic waste.

The most common source of acid waste is from mining and rock cutting. Last I checked, there aren't a lot of significant sources of acid mine/rock drainage near Hungary (the closest ones I know are in Spain). There's also the fact this drainage is pretty complex stuff. Mixing with caustic soda can be unpredictable.

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Happy

Funding application

"After all, my financing application went in four months ago and decision day is only six weeks hence"

If I were a member of the review board, I would be asking you the following questions:

a) Do you own any digging equipment? and

b) Have you been to Hungary recently...

:)

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Ignorant propaganda much?

Ignorant, as in ignoring that this has a deleterious effect on the ecosystem it is passing through.

Imagine that, there is more to life than economics, which is the study of arbitrary factors. Simply because you have not decided to take into account some costs, does not mean they aren't there. This is the same kind of arrogant and dismissive analysis that leads people to conclude that there really is no pollution problem if it doesn't appear on the balance sheets. Well, you've swayed me. Lets start taxing carbon emissions and any other waste we can think of. That appears to be the only way to get some people to consider factors that don't fit into their narrow "economic" view. Otherwise, it's just more businesses freeloading on the backs of the public.

This is my admittedly conservative view. I'm not for picking up the check for the lazy and irresponsible elements of society.

And no, I'm not an activist. I just don't care for terrible analysis.

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Troll

Just Red mud with a PH of 13 But Its ok ARE U FOR REAL

IT IS JUST CAUSTIC SODA SO ITS OK. That the basis of your analysis. With a MAX alkalinity being 14, a measure of 13 is almost as bad as it can get. But wait it is only caustic Soda so we should not worry.

Prolonged exposure to bauxite fumes which contain aluminum and silica particulates may cause Bauxite pneumoconiosis, also known as Shaver's disease. But guess what Silicates are just sand. ARE YOU FOR REAL.

I am no tree hugging environmentalist but please start making some sense.

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Anonymous Coward

So shine a light then, o wise one

I look forward to reading your analysis enlightening us about all the deleterious effects on the ecosystem that haven't been expounded upon in Tim's analysis. I mean this in simple straight up fasion: If you know better, do tell.

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Anonymous Coward

Shaver's disease

Hardly a huge ENVIRONMENTAL catastrope.

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Unhappy

Not that big a pond anyway

Google provides quite a nice aerial picture of the pond before the disaster. Its big, its a hazard if it gets loose but its not awe-inspiringly apocalypitically huge. As disasters go it doesn't even rate compared to something like Aberfan.

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Green mud

Doesn't sodium hydroxide bond with carbon dioxide to make sodium carbonate? I'm waiting for somebody to put a green spin on this.

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Pint

My Takeaway...

from this article is that we should consume less water, for the time being at least, and drink more beer as compensation...Cheers!

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Silver badge

Let's clear some confusion...

...because there's a good reason why Greenpeace, Hungarian Academy of Science and independent experts all measure different things: as far as I can tell from the news abroad they all work with DIFFERENT SAMPLES.

Academics work with samples taken on location, at various places, most likely by agents of other state authorities/services and submitted via official gov protocols, Greenpeace works with samples their people took in villages and surrounding areas while other experts often work with completely different samples, taken from industrial waste pools of similar byproducts, located in other parts of Hungary.

I am completely neutral when it comes to Greenpeace - they did a lot of good as well as stupid things - but now I am having hard time imagining that a brand new, right-wing government is trying to manipulate scientists to suppress data about hazardous carcinogen being present at elevated levels in the mud... why would they do it? The culprit here is a private company (MAL) and the owners' list shows a familiar picture for anyone accustomed in Central-European politics: the usual group of few well-connected, former post-Commie bureaucrats/engineers-turned-billionaires - see Origo on this (in Hungarian): http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20101007-iszapkatasztrofa-a-mal-zrt-tulajdonosai-tolnay-lajos-bakonyi-arpad-petrusz.html

If the government wants to do anything then it is to blame the company for everything, with any evidence they can get their hands on so they can strike them with much higher fines.

In short there's a good chance Greenpeace is indeed fluffing things a bit to raise the profile of this issue and their own - it wouldn't be the first time, after all...

Disclosure: expat, born and raised in Budapest.

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Unhappy

Threat or Menace?

Some may find Mr. Worstall's comments entertaining, but all Register readers should know that Mr. Worstall has little understanding of the matter. Insofar as Mr. Worstall has any insight into this most-recent, dire ecological catastrophe, it is informed by his adherence to an Ayn Randian economic and political ideology.

Should you doubt the foregoing, please visit timworstall.com. You will find today's (8 Oct 10) lead posting to be "Ignorant greenie whining.." You will also find the first two sentences of his self-description are: "Tim Worstall is an Englishman who has failed at many things. Thus his turn to writing, the last refuge of many who could make a living no other way." You will further find that his site's seven advertising links include two for payday loans, two for bad-credit loans, and one for "Gulf [of Arabia] Jobs."

All of this may be intended to superficially humorous, in the same manner as ex-US-President George Bush, Jr., gave demeaning nicknames to his aides--his most important aide, Karl Rove, being called "Turdblossom." Or, more likely, Mr. Worstall's Web site is an accurate reflection of the man. Mr. Worstall may indeed be serious, and he may well have had, or now still does have, reason to borrow money at as much as 433% annual interest. Or, perhaps, his site's visitors are likely to need cash and jobs.

No matter what motivates Mr. Worstall to denigrate science and promote scam artists, he should be pitied.

Given Mr. Worstall's credentials, or lack thereof, the most charitable view of his remarks about the Danube is that he is ill-informed. When Mr. Worstall says "we," he does not mean "those with knowledge, experience and wisdom." The "we" amongst whom he includes himself is a group that is largely comprised of far-right ideologues.

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Anonymous Coward

Sorry, no relevant facts...

...in your otherwise interesting posting.

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FAIL

Play the ball, not the man

If your only meaningful criticism is the ads on Tim's site (when I visit the front page, I see only HP and VJV, probably courtesy of Google), it may be better to remain silent and be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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Re: Threat or Menace?

@veskebjorn - "Some may find Mr. Worstall's comments entertaining, but all Register readers should know that Mr. Worstall has little understanding of the matter. "

Err, read his blog and you will find that he has a great understanding of the matter.

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Paris Hilton

I think you dropped this

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

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Pirate

We're all doomed!

According to that highly reputable source the BBC in this article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11492387

it contains Calcium Oxide, CaO "'Quicklime', can cause skin irritation, burns and sickness."

They are quite correct, that stuff is pretty dangerous, mostly because of the extremely violent way it reacts with water.

So if it's been sitting around in a mud bath and is now in the river, can we see a slight error here children?

Silicon dioxide? "Can cause lung diseases and cancer if inhaled as dust" - ever tried inhaling dust out of a river? Don't go near any beaches, sand is made of the stuff!

Titanium dioxide: "Caused cancer when tested on animals" - that would be the stuff used in white paint?

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Quicklime? New place for the BOFH's, um, "unsatisfied clients"?

I hesitate to make light of what is clearly a horrendous situation (not just a wall of mud, but a wall of highly alkaline mud, with who- knows- what ecological eventualities), but if a resource presents itself it's a shame to waste it.

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Boffin

The BBC reporter made a schoolboy error

The "red mud" contains an assortment of complex silicates, aluminates, titanates and compounds of all of the above, of variable composition and with one metal (or silicon) frequently substituting for another. So a shortcut, when the precise structure is not an issue, is simply to write the composition as a collection of oxides. So, for example, a simple calcium silicate CaSiO3 could be written as CaO.SiO2 (but most real examples are much more complicated). This gives an indication of which metals (for the sake of argument, including silicon) are present and in what proportions, but does NOT imply that the oxides are present separately... particularly the livelier ones suct as sodium and calcium oxides (neither of which would last long in a wet environment).

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An article that oozes sneer

Yet another toweringly insightful environment piece on the register.

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Joke

Send for the Goodies

They know how to dispose of (toxic) sludge. They dealt with the ex-military green stuff, albeit with hair-raising results....

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Coat

40th anniversary coming up soon...

The Goodies that is.

A goody goody yum yum!

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Dead Vulture

What can I say?

While the end of the world is rarely nigh, and the "greenies" overstate the dire consequences, that isn't to say this is really just some trivial "red mud", any more than Katrina was "a bit windy" or "bugger it, let's just dump the radioactive waste here, it isn't *that* dangerous *really*"...

I'm speechless. I think I'll let the icon say it for me.

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Mr. Worstall sneers as Hungarians die

Mr. Worstall said: "Yes, of course, a flood of such stuff [toxic red sludge] ripping through villages is a disaster, not least for those who didn't survive it. But a long-term threat to the ecosystem? Nah, it's just something for the more excitable greenies to shout about."

The death toll resulting from this flood is now seven. More may die. The relatives, friends, and neighbors of "those who didn't survive"and those who are still clinging to life appear to regard the problem in a rather different and substantially more permanent way than Mr. Worstall. Those affected, none of whom can reasonably be called "excitable greenies," appear to regard these deaths in a rather different light than Mr. Worstall.

Mr. Worstall must examine his conscience and then humbly and sincerely apologize. Should Mr. Worstall prove incapable of this response, The Register must either discontinue his services or face the loss of much of the site's credibility in environmental and scientific matters.

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FAIL

Which part of the word 'disaster'

are you not understanding? You can take that foot out of your mouth, now.

The article is all about the ludicrous overhyping of the *environmental* impact of this disaster. Of course I (and, I'm sure, Tim) sympathise with those who have been killed or injured, just as for the mudslide in China that killed at least 700 people.

Yesterday (and today, and tomorrow) seven people were killed on the UK's roads. Very sad for those involved, naturally, but it puts the level of this disaster into perspective, I think.

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In the context of Worstall's views, "disaster" has little meaning

Given what I have seen of Mr. Worstall's writing since I found his Danube piece offensive, I think it likely that he has scant concern or sympathy for the dead along the Danube, the dead in China, the dead in the UK, or the dead anywhere else.

Mr. Worstall has a disturbing take on the world; he seems to believe that people's fates are almost entirely determined by individual merit and effort. Rather like the Calvinists, Mr. Worstall appears to regard individuals' good and ill fortunes to be the result of some intrinsic self-worth (or, for the Calvinists, worth in the eyes of God).

My wife is a wildlife biologist. She regards the almost-certain destruction of the fauna and flora of the Danube as a long-term environmental catastrophe. It will take years for the river system to recover, and the resulting ecology will likely be rather different than the one that existed before the spill. Invasive and disturbance species (these are two separate groups) will have the upper hand for a long time to come. Exactly how long is speculative, and good scientists don't speculate.

The environmental problems of the Danube basin have not been ludicrously overhyped. The deaths resulting from the incompetence of the corporation which produced the red sludge will lead to changes in laws and behaviors--and this will be another long-term environmental consequence of the affair, Mr. Worstall and Mr. (or Ms.) Miller notwithstanding.

As to the attempts at sarcasm and denigration: they are inappropriate in such matters. The effect of such attempts, at best, is to amuse those who agree with you and dismay those who do not. Put another way, such behavior does not advance either your argument or cause.

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Yes ... but

You and everyone else taking issue with this article seem to be objecting to the tone rather than the facts as given. According to Hungarian officials (Interior Minister Sandor Pinter and Tibor Dobson, a spokesperson for disaster crews) the risk to the Danube is now 'negligible'.

So if the science in this article is good (and I've yet to see a proper rebuttal), then quite frankly, I'd rather take the 'sarcasm and denigration' than hysteria.

But please step forward. Show us that 'the almost-certain destruction of the fauna and flora of the Danube' is indeed happening as a result of this spill. Otherwise, with all due respect, shut up.

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There's still time to remove that foot

"I think it likely that he has scant concern or sympathy" - oh well, if you 'think' so, that's clearly an end of the argument. If you don't have any evidence, perhaps an apology might be in order.

"almost-certain destruction of the fauna and flora of the Danube" - is this a fact, or just something else you 'think'? I've seen no evidence to support such a view or, as it might be, ludicous over-hyping.

There are many valid reasons to be concerned about the health of the world's waterways and wetlands. Last time I was in Eastern Hungary, there was great concern about the pollution of the local rivers by cyanide from mining operations across the border in Romania. But Greens leaping onto the bandwagon of the latest news item, only serve to weaken the rational case for environmental improvement (the boy who cried wolf, etc.)

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Quite true

"What are Envirofone, Mazuma et al doing with the old phones people send in? I'm not too sure but I seem to remember hearing that the yield of recoverable gold in 1 ton of used cell phones was something like 50 times that in a ton of good Ore? (although this could just be complete Bollocks!)"

I'm not sure of the modern numbers, but an old 286 chip will get you a tenner from a gold scrap dealer.

"If the biggest 'problem' with red sludge is the high concentration of caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), then why not mix it with some acidic waste from somewhere else to neutralise it?"

One plant in Australia does something like this: bubbles waste ammonia from a nearby plant through it. The basic problem though is the volume/cost calculation. We're hoping to work with one of the smaller plants but even there there's 400,000 tonnes a year of red mud to deal with. And the alumina produced (about 200,000 tonnes a year) is worth $200 a tonne or so. There's just not a lot of money per tonne of waste (especially when you consider margin, not gross income) to play with.

"Simply because you have not decided to take into account some costs, does not mean they aren't there."

Strange allegation to throw at someone who has just revealed that part of their working life is to work on solving exactly this problem isn't it?

"...why all the fuss about a bit of oil? It'll dilute in all that seawater and eventually it'll disappear, given enough decades."

Sometimes this is true (that tanker that went down off the Shetlands in a storm a few years ago: a few weeks later no one could find any sign of the oil at all) and sometimes it isn't true. It depends you see. Depends on where, how much, what, how much water and what the conditions are. The important thing is to work out which is which situation. As, umm, the article tries to do.

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Boffin

One point

Ammonia does't count as acidic waste - it is alkaline (but not as alkaline as red mud).

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True but...

"I'm not sure of the modern numbers, but an old 286 chip will get you a tenner from a gold scrap dealer."

But what about the rest of the computer? Chuck it in a container and ship it off to India?

If you have to deal with the whole computer it's going to cost to tear it apart and sort all the different materials, and some stuff you will have to pay to get rid of (mixed plastics, the motherboard with lead/tin solder for example). The only way you can make money is if you are subsidised. More places are charging e-waste fees at the time purchase to subsidise recycling at the end of life of the product.

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WTF?

@veskebjorn

I think your post is absolutely out of context.

What Tom is discussing is the environmental impact. Human lives are precious, no matter what nationality, and I don't think that the author thinks less.

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