“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), a summer camp hosted by California Polytechnic State University. Asking this question always makes me a little bit wary. After all, this is a generation of instant gratification. Kids these days get their first iPads before they can walk. Their pockets are lined with devices meant for digital play, not physical exploration. 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?
But a dozen hands shot up.
Over half of the young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, aspiring engineers had taken apart home electronics. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I was certainly relieved.
Discussion ensued. We shared disassembly stories and repair adventures. A handful of students had taken apart broken computers, radios, and cellphones. Others had put things together. One student had even opened up his mom’s working desktop. He installed a wireless mouse receiver in order to remotely control her mouse—an awesome prank.
Sharing stories got the campers excited. They were ready to take some things apart. Read the rest of this article »
Just thought I’d take a look at the state of electronics recycling around the world to see how we’re doing.
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 of it is still going in to landfills and incinerators. According to UNEP, e-waste is the fastest-growing type of waste, particularly in some developing countries where the volume is expected to grow by up to 500 percent over the next decade.
Unfortunately, electronics recycling is a comparatively low priority in many countries. Most countries of the world (including the U.S.) don’t have a coherent national collection infrastructure. This is true for most of Asia where the problem is becoming critical. According to Park Young-Woo of the United Nations Environment Program, the Asia-Pacific region now produces more than half of global e-waste. He estimates that only 10 percent of it is recycled worldwide. Read the rest of this article »
Picture it: you need to buy a new remote control. You cruise to the store to pick up a new remote and some extra AA batteries—they run out, after all. Best be prepared. You take the remote home, open the package, and—wait a minute! This isn’t your mom’s remote control. It’s a super slick gadget that appears to be glued together for an über modern look. Great!
But there’s a downside to seamlessness. You can’t replace the battery yourself. There are no instructions provided on how to get into the remote, and it’s nearly impossible to tear apart. That means once those encased AA batteries run out, you’ll probably have to buy a new remote control. And the cycle repeats. Forever.
Sound appealing? It runs counter to commonsense to own a battery-run device that doesn’t allow you to replace the batteries quickly and easily. There’s a reason that people own gadgets like alarm clocks, remotes, and watches for years and years: they can switch out the batteries themselves.
There’s no such thing as a sealed remote control yet, but it’s closer to reality than you might think. Every day, we settle for expensive electronics—cell phones, tablets, computers—with batteries that can’t be removed and replaced. These products might look great, but when it comes to batteries, recycling, and reuse, there are some big problems. Read the rest of this article »
Earl Kaplan stands near a wood table scattered with assorted screwdrivers and a package of oatmeal cookies. He surveys the half-a-dozen other retirees, each one tinkering with a computer in various states of repair.
From across the small workshop, someone heckles Earl about the stress that comes with his job.
“I give ulcers; I don’t get them,” he says with mock sternness. “It’s better to give than to receive.”
There’s a palpable air of cheerfulness in the backrooms of The Exploration Station, a youth science museum and technology center in Grover Beach, California. Computer towers stand with their guts exposed; PC fans hum placidly; the refurbishers cajole each other lightheartedly. One computer lets out a long, impatient beep. Earl glares at it.
“Tell her about our lunch,” one man shouts over his shoulder.
“Oh! Our annual lunch? Our annual no-host lunch,” Earl says. “Once a year, we go out to Round Table Pizza and we vote ourselves a percentage raise.”
Everyone laughs. The joke, of course, is that a percentage raise of zero is still zero. Earl and company are unpaid volunteers—part of the 25 regular volunteers that keep The Exploration Station running. Almost all the volunteers are retired. Some have been donating their time here for more than a decade.
But the work is rewarding. Most of the volunteers at The Exploration Station collect, recycle, and refurbish computers as part of the organization’s Computers 4 Youth program. The goal: get technology into the hands of those who need it—and do it for free.
“People need computers,” says Deborah Love, the Exploration Station’s director. “We underestimated [the degree of need], because as computers started becoming cheaper and more user-friendly, we did anticipate that the need would taper off. It has not.” Read the rest of this article »
Anyone who still doubts that people care about sustainable electronics has not been paying attention this year. We are officially dubbing 2012 as “the year of the fixer”: More and more people are breaking out their screwdrivers, and the headlines have been full of repair stories. 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. And Sprint announced that all of their phones will meet this standard—they will be openable, modular, and repairable.
There was so much going on this year that we missed some exciting repair news. So, here are five more important repair stories that fell through our cracks:
E-waste is a tricky problem in part because it’s so complex: 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 piecing it together, to retail salespeople, to users, to exporters, to importers, to scavengers. The problem can be overwhelmingly abstract. But documentaries make it more real and immediate—and it’s been a while since we last reviewed an e-waste documentary. Terra Blight, a recent release from independent documentary film production company Jellyfish Smack (the folks behind “World of Trash”), gives the problem a human face and unravels some of its complexities.