Christmas is the high-water mark of new stuff—and a lot of that new stuff is going to be electronic. As Wired’s Christina Bonnington pointed out yesterday, the mounting influx of shiny, thin devices is an environmental catastrophe just waiting to happen. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. If we’ve got any shot at meeting the e-waste challenge head-on, manufacturers are going to have to start giving a product’s end-of-life a lot more consideration.
The post-Christmas season is an e-waste high water mark in the United States. New computers, phone docks, wireless speakers, and watches under the Christmas tree crowd out the old(er) ones. What isn’t donated or recycled usually makes its way to the trash. And a recent study by the United Nations University and MIT has details on just how high our e-trash hoard is getting.
“Who here has ever taken something apart?” I stood in front of 20 sixth- and seventh-grade students at the Engineering Possibilities in College (EPIC). Asking this question always makes me a little bit wary. After all, this is a generation of instant gratification. Kids get their first iPads before they can walk now. So, I thought, how many junior high students would actually spend their time learning about the inner workings of electronic devices? How many even care? A dozen hands shot up.
According to the International Environmental Technology Center of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) the volume of e-waste is increasing by 40 percent per year worldwide. They estimate that 80 percent goes into landfills and incinerators. According to UNEP, e-waste is the fastest-growing type of waste. In some developing countries, the volume is expected to grow by up to 500 percent over the next decade. Check up with the state of electronics recycling around the world on iFixit.org.
Slim electronics might look great, but there’s a major problem with their design: battery accessibility. The growing trend in electronics is a seamless device that keeps the owner from replacing the battery. Instead, owners are forced to buy new products—when their old device is still running smoothly. If you own the product, the battery should be yours to change.
Computers arrive at The Exploration Station because they’ve outlived their usefulness. Some unwanted, used computers are donated to the program by local families and businesses. Others come to the facility as e-waste. Behind the building, volunteers welcome people with drop-offs and sort through the cast-off electronics. Over the last 14 years, this group of dedicated volunteers has refurbished the cast-offs and given out almost 4,000 computers to their community.
We dub 2012 “the year of the fixer”: More and more people are breaking out their screwdrivers, and the headlines have been full of repair. The iPhone 5 is the most repairable iPhone ever. There are fewer toxic chemicals in new cell phones than ever before. A draft of a new green cell phone standard, UL 110, requires that manufacturers secure cases with screws rather than glues. There was so much going on this year that we missed some exciting repair news.
E-waste is a tricky problem in part because of its complexity: for a computer to end up in the infamous Ghana dump site Agbogbloshie, it has to pass through hundreds of hands, from assembly line workers, to retail salespeople, to users, to exporters, to scavengers. The problem can be overwhelmingly abstract, but documentaries make it more real and immediate. Terra Blight, a recently released independent documentary film, gives the problem a human face and unravels some of its complexities.
Even though the electronics manufacturing jobs are today primarily in Asia, there’s no reason repair and recycling can’t become a true-blooded American industry. At least one large electronics manufacturer has already found a way to responsibly handle its e-waste and create much-needed jobs in the bargain. Through a partnership with Goodwill called Reconnect, Dell collects 90 million pounds of electronics each year.
Last week, amidst the sweeping political mandates of the Presidential debates, education Secretary Arne Duncan made a mandate of his own, calling for the nation to ditch printed textbooks in favor of digital ones. “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” he declared.
Often, too little thought goes into the real world implications of what politicians say. This statement, however, left us scratching our collective heads a bit. Just how feasible is Duncan’s plan? As we’ve pointed out before, in the hands of children, Kindles have a tendency to break and iPads to shatter. What happens then?
Classrooms need technology—that we acknowledge. In fact, a big part of our mission is teaching through technology. If we want 21st-century problem solvers, we need to train them on 21st-century technology.
Durable technology can be manufactured, but over 80 million students are currently enrolled in U.S. schools and colleges—that’s far more than the 47.5 million tablets that Forbes estimates are currently in use nationwide. Are we entering the age of “one tablet per child”? If so, is there a plan for sustainable manufacturing of these devices? And what is the government’s plan for e-waste, and the inevitable end-of-life for all these e-textbooks?
Electronic waste contains 40-50 times the amount of gold in ore mined from the ground, according to a report last week by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative and the United Nations University. According to the report, between 2001 and 2011, the electronics industry as a whole went from using 197 to 320 tons of gold. Nevertheless, no more than 15% of the gold in e-waste is being recovered in recycling processes.
Kyle spoke this week at a U.S. International Trade Commission hearing on used electronics exports. The hearing will be an important source for a USITC study for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. In his testimony, Kyle stressed the importance of repair worldwide.