Do Mother Nature a big favor today: don’t recycle your broken electronics.
We all grew up with the old mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—your checklist for sustainable living. But recycling is the final item on that list for a reason. When it comes to electronics, recycling should be the last option. Not the first.
Last year, 1.75 billion phones were sold to consumers around the world. By the end of 2013, another 240 million tablets and 207 million PCs will be produced and shipped globally. Seamless plastic and sleek aluminum covers belie the messy origins of our favorite gizmos.
The laptop on your desk, the cell phone in your back pocket, and the tablet on your nightstand all house within them materials wrested from a reluctant earth—things like cobalt, cadmium, nickel, lead, copper, and gold. A single cell phone, for example, is composed of between 500 to 1,000 different components—some sourced from countries that aren’t particularly well-known for safe mining practices, human rights, or environmental standards.
As the demand for gadgets increases, so do raw material extraction rates. In the last 10 years, iron ore production has increased by 180%, cobalt by 165%, and lithium by 125%. Every year, mining operations have to go deeper into the earth, producing more waste for less raw materials. Copper ore deposits, for example, are only one-tenth the purity of the ore mined 100 years ago. Mining and producing just an ounce of gold creates approximately 80 tons of waste.
No matter what manufacturers try to tell you, there is no such thing as a green electronic. 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 »
The economy is broken. It’s not because of partisan bickering or the debt ceiling. It’s not because there is too much government spending or too little, too many taxes or too few. The problem cuts much deeper than that; it’s systemic and it’s global. The economy is broken because the principles that make the marketplace thrive will eventually destroy it.
Our economic growth is dependent on access to cheap raw materials, and those resources are getting scarcer and more expensive. The McKinsey Global Institute reports that price volatility has hit a high, second only to the energy crisis of the 1970s.
Political conflicts are erupting over access to critical metals, minerals, and rare earths: materials like the lithium in our batteries, the neodynium in our computers, and the coltan in our cell phones. The cost of many staple resources, including oil, steel, and food, are rapidly escalating.
And yet 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. In North America, less than 1% of all the resources we extract from the earth are actually used in products that are still around six months after their sale. Taken together, it’s not a matter of whether resource prices will go up — it’s a matter of when, and by how much.
While we scramble to get our hands on an increasingly smaller share of this economic pie, most businesses have failed to realize that the materials they need aren’t buried deep under the ground; they are already all around us — they just need to be rescued from the waste stream. It’s time to invent a better economy — one that is independent of volatile, increasingly expensive raw materials. And I believe developing more resource-efficient business models will be the largest single financial opportunity of the twenty-first century. 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 »
Image via LaMenta3 on Flickr
Despite increases in recycling worldwide, the EPA estimates that only about 25 percent of America‘s end-of-life electronics are actually recycled. Whether tossed in a landfill or left in a closet, the rest becomes waste. We tend to think of e-waste as only affecting people half a world away, in places like Accra and Guiyu. But irresponsible electronic disposal hits much closer to home than you might think. We’re not just letting 75 percent of our old electronics go to waste, we’re also wasting an opportunity to rebuild the domestic electronics industry.
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. There are currently 5 million tons of electronics rusting in garages, junk drawers, and storage units around the nation. Instead of losing value, those items could be turned into profit. Ten years ago, the EPA estimated that the recycling and reuse industry accounted for roughly 1.1 million jobs and $236 billion dollars in revenue. If recycling and refurbishing rates in America increase, those numbers could rise dramatically.
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? Read the rest of this article »