The developing world is becoming the west's digital dumping ground. Every year around 50m tonnes of unwanted electronic devices make their way to vast e-waste dumps in Guiyu in China and Agbogbloshie in Ghana – often illegally.
Some of them will be repaired and resold. Others will be broken into their components, at considerable expense to the environment and people's health, and sold as raw materials to manufacturers. Yet more will be left as piles of toxic litter.
The absurdity of manufacturing a device in China, shipping it around the world to a European consumer and then, when it is disposed of, shipping it straight back to an e-waste dump close to where it was built is not lost on the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC), a group of organisations that promote green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. "We're buying more, getting rid of it [more quickly] and design changes are, in some ways, making recycling even more challenging," says Barbara Kyle, the ETBC's UK co-ordinator.
In fact, only around 13% of the e-waste generated each year is recycled. The increasing amounts of digital tech brought by middle-class consumers in China, India and Africa is a growing part of the problem. If the trend continues, the annual amount of global e-waste will be 65m tonnes by 2017, according to the STEP initiative (also known as solving the e-waste problem). Couple this with shortages of some rare earth metals and other resources from mining operations, and it is clear that something needs to change.
Part of the solution involves "closing the loop", which in this context means reclaiming and reusing valuable materials from discarded devices in an ethical, environmentally friendly way. Schemes aimed at building connections between designers, manufacturers and end-of-life disposal companies are springing up in response.
The Great Recovery project, established by the Technology Strategy Board and the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce) in 2012, aims to build networks to explore manufacturing, design and recycling problems, investigate innovation gaps and incubate partnerships.
At the beginning, designers were invited to attend workshops at end-of-life facilities. This showed them what happens to their products after they had been discarded, and better understand the problems of dismantling them for recycling. LCD TVs, for example, can contain more than 250 screws, with 15 different screwdrivers needed to undo them.
Mike Pitts, lead sustainability at the Technology Strategy Board, says designers are "starved" of this kind of information. "It's crucial [they] connect with the materials they're working with, and it's quite hard for them to do that," he explains.
In the US, a course set up by the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) in conjunction with Purdue University and Tuskegee University is training engineers to develop sustainable alternative electronics materials. Students on the university-based "Global traineeship in sustainable electronics" program are helping to research soy-base resins for circuit board construction, which could one day replace petroleum-based components.
"Nanocomposites" made of natural materials, could one day be used for casing and circuit board construction, and are in development, as are adhesives made from marine organisms that could improve the construction and disassembly process for electronic devices.
Sustainable materials may be some years away but a new course looking at the environmental and social impact of technology at each stage of a product's life cycle is due to start this spring at the University of Illinois. The focus of sustainable manufacturing is on better use of what is already out there.
There are sound financial and ethical reasons for worrying about the life cycle of a product, according to Bibi Bleekemolen, research and outreach officer for Fairphone. She believes that by absolving themselves of responsibility for their products at the point of sale, companies are demonstrating "an economic reasoning [that] bypasses the circularity of the economy … in a way you're still the owner of what you sell and you still have the responsibility to make sure that the consumer knows what to do with it afterwards, and that you can make use of it yourself again."
Environmental Protection Agency figures suggest that recycling 1m mobile phones could recover 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium and more than 20,000 pounds of copper. All of which helps to make the case for "urban mining", reclaiming some of these valuable resources from the mountains of digital junk already out there. "The more urban mining you do … the less copper is needed to be mined from conflict areas," explains Bleekemolen.
Fairphone has factored this thinking into its pricing strategy: for every €325 phone sold, €3 is dedicated to collecting old phones in Ghana. Around 75,000 handsets will be collected and transferred to a European recycling facility to extract copper and other materials for future phones, instead of ending up in the world's largest e-dump at Agbogbloshie.
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