What does it take to turn the lights on in poverty-stricken, rural communities? According to a group of researchers from IBM, the solution just might be e-waste. And they’re proving it by turning old laptop batteries into new, low-cost lights that can power homes and shops in the developing world. They are calling the project UrJar—and, sold cheaply, they hope UrJar will light up the world.
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.
I watch as workers at BMW’s Recycling and Dismantling Centre fish around for an alternator under the hood of what must have been a mid-sized sedan—except this car doesn’t have a hood anymore. In fact, this car doesn’t have much of anything anymore. Its skeletal remains picked clean of most detachable components, this car is one of about 6,000 BMWs recycled at the centre every year—just a tiny fraction of what BMW actually manufactures every single year. So why isn’t BMW recycling more?
Dell’s products have consistently impressed us with their modularity and repairability. Time and time again, Dell’s products have scored well on our teardown table. The Dell XPS 10 even tops the list of our most repairable tablets, earning a 9/10 for repairability. Now the recycling industry has independently verified iFixit’s findings. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) just announced Dell Inc. as the recipient of its 2014 Design for Recycling (DFR) Award.
Reuse just got one more advocate: Pope Francis. The newly instated Pope, who has long been an activist for the world’s poor, recently commended the efforts of the world’s “cartoneros”—informal waste pickers who sort through local dumps for items to salvage, reuse, or recycle. It’s dirty, hard, and sometimes dangerous work. Cartoneros are exposed to a slew of toxic materials and environmental pollutants. And we’re glad to see that someone is giving these men and women the respect they deserve.
Mark Sensenbach perches on a stool, back slightly hunched, eyes down, brows narrowed in concentration. His hands, toughened by mountains and work, maneuver the rubber sole of a climbing shoe against a sanding wheel. Mark started the shoe repair business, Recycle Resoles, almost two years ago. He’s one of only a handful of guys in California who resoles climbing shoes. Read about this repair master on iFixit.org.
We all grew up with the old mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But when it comes to electronics, recycling should be the final resort. Last year, 1.75 billion phones were sold to consumers. By the end of 2013, another 240 million tablets and 207 million PCs will be shipped globally. Many of the components in these gadgets—including rare earth elements—cannot be recovered during recycling. It’s time to add a fourth R to your sustainability action list: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, then Recycle.
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.
We’re buying, using, and discarding these resources at a rapid and unsustainable pace. The average consumer buys over 2,200 lbs of material per year; 80% of these materials end up in incinerators, landfills, or as wastewater. It’s not a matter of whether resource prices will go up — it’s a matter of when, and by how much. Unless we adapt. It’s time to invent a better economy.
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.
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?