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.
MBAonline.com recently published an infographic called “The True Cost of an iPhone,” about the iPhone’s supply chain and end-of-life. Though it’s considerably more comprehensive than many others about e-waste, it suffers from some of the same problems: numbers about e-waste are unreliable, unverifiable, and often outdated. The infographic form glosses over that complexity and makes the numbers seem much more solid than they are.
Can you figure out how to track electronic waste as it moves downstream, from electronics recyclers to its final location in waste sites, scrap markets, or remanufacturing plants? Popular Science and InnoCentive’s latest Innovation Challenge offers a reward of up to $10,000 for the best scalable system to track electronic waste.
In a Tekzilla interview, Kyle chatted with Patrick Norton about why repairability of the iPad is important for the world. He outlines some of the complexities of the e-waste issue: on the one hand, shipping used electronic goods to Africa means that the components may be recycled dangerously. But those used goods also create jobs.
Right outside the Ghana electronics scrapyard Agbogbloshie, our car was approached by a young man selling refurbished TV remotes. This is a side of Agbogbloshie you don’t see as often as pictures of young boys burning electronics. Many jobs are born out of those piles of discarded electronics—this man had to collect these remotes, repair and clean them, and now he can put food on the table by selling them. Is Agbogbloshie just a dump?
Servers were the size of refrigerators and a single CPU chip had about $300 of gold when Montreal-based electronics recycling company FCM Recycling started harvesting precious metals from computers’ circuit boards and memory. Last week, I chatted with FCM representatives Chris and Andrew about the the work they’re doing and the e-waste climate in Canada.
Last Friday, the UN’s E-waste Africa Program reported findings from studies in 5 African countries (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria) over the last 3 years. Poor African countries are not just helpless, unwitting victims of wealthier countries’ electronic trash. Africa, like the rest of the world, has been catapulted into the information age—compared to 10 years ago, 10 times as many Africans have personal computers, and 100 times as many have mobile phones.
On a Delhi street, a group of men load a pile of power supply units and optical drives into a truck to take them for recycling. We took this photo in Seelampur, home to the largest electronics scrap market in India. 80,000 people in India work in the informal e-waste recycling sector. Even this close to the end-of-life for these PSUs, it’s very difficult to tell whether or not they’ll be disassembled responsibly.
The Story of Electronics is about our relationship with the stuff we own and the consequences of consumer habits. The video is a great primer on e-waste issues. In the video, Annie Leonard argues that products are “designed for the dump”—companies expect to be able to grow profits at the same rate that processing power grows, which requires that consumers buy new products regularly rather than repairing the devices they already have. But the resulting waste is toxic.
How much e-waste is there, anyway? How reliable is the available data? And why is it important to find out?
This infographic, from Good & Column Five, is compelling, and it’s been making the rounds on the internet for a while. But I’m skeptical, both of their source data (I found some discrepancies) and of the idea that this issue can be simplified so much.
First of all, I want to give you a better sense of the scale of the problem—the infographic gives you big numbers, but no context. 40 million tons is a lot of mass. That’s 80 billion pounds. Given that there are 6.99 billion people in the word, we are producing about 11.5 pounds of e-waste per person on the planet, per year. So each year, your share of the global e-waste is about the weight of a house cat.
That doesn’t seem so big, right? Well, it depends on a lot of factors: what kind of toxic materials like lead and poly-brominated flame retardants are in your cat-sized allotment of waste? How much energy was used to manufacture it in the first place? What is the carbon footprint of all that manufacturing? Is it possible to fully recycle it to make new electronics, or will it all be downcycled and used to make plastic freeway dividers?