Category Archives: Environment

Your Device’s Afterlife

We are far enough into the digital age that massive electronic waste is a pervasive problem for even the developing world.

The churn of new and discarded personal phones, tablets, computers, TVs, navigation devices, etc. means the average person is generating toxic trash on a regular basis, and there are no indications of a slowdown.

Recycling of glass, metal, and paper has been a long-term success because there are manufacturing buyers for those materials (one aluminum can is worth about 2 cents). The market can support not only the costs of collection and cleaning, but also efforts to educate the public and to advertise for the desired action of using bins and cooperating with local governments.

According to the EPA, in 2016 recycling created:

  • 681,000 jobs
  • $37.8 billion in wages; and
  • $5.5 billion in tax revenues.

As for electronics, CDs can be shredded into polycarbonate plastic, but buyers are hard to find. Still, businesses exist for collecting old and unused electronics. Many also perform data wipes and so offer a security benefit.

OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) are obligated to help with cleanup in the life cycle. This is enforced by Extended Producer Responsibility laws, which are administered mostly by states; for manufacturers to sell in that state, they must take some responsibility for end of life recycling or disposal. The amount of assistance required is usually determined by market share.

Collections are even moving to the developing world; phone manufacturers use revenue from new phone sales to collect and ship phones from places like Africa to be properly disposed of elsewhere.

Closing the Loop is a Dutch company working on e-waste in Cameroon, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia:

Initially, the idea was to generate revenue entirely from the value of commodities recovered from phones in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. But the economics of that approach didn’t work because it was so costly to try to set up new collection networks. “We lost money there,” said (founder) De Kluijver. “Let’s just call it ‘learning money.’” In 2016, the business pivoted toward the current offset model with corporate backing.

Closing the Loop partners with local stores and churches.

“(Large corporations) funding the initiative can then promote the fact that for each new product they put on the market, an old one has been collected and processed through proper channels. (As of early 2019), the effort has collected roughly 2 million devices...

“I believe the telecom industry is the first global industry that could really become waste free,” De Kluijver said. “The more customers we support, the more waste we can collect. And that allows us to become more and more a metal producer – an urban mining one.”

We applaud the electronics manufacturers practicing corporate responsibility AND maintaining brand integrity. Furthermore, we recognize that EPR laws are an example of positive government oversight, happening in the US at the state level — much preferable to federal. Without these regulations, the tragedy of the commons would result in dystopian metal waste dumps all over your neighborhood and in your water. Happy shopping!

The Fellowship of Trash

“There are people doing work to sanitize our surroundings for us, who are caring for our health and happiness, and many of us don’t even know where our waste goes,” notes author Joshua Reno, of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill.

Not only does our society largely fail to recognize the importance and contributions of these servers, but we determine their importance and geographical placement in a highly political manner.

“Because there are very few, very big landfills and many communities who depend on them, that means that some people and places bear a disproportionate burden. Rural communities, in general, bear this burden, and some states, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia, import a lot of waste on behalf of others… rural places with a small tax base and less political organization are more likely to end up with a big waste site in their backyard. As a result, most waste sites end up located near communities of color and poorer people. So even though we have so much space in this country, compared to others, we still end up exposing disadvantaged and minority groups to everyone else’s waste.”

“Landfills are not merely dumps, where you just leave stuff to decay in the open air. They carefully spread out, compact, and bury wastes of different kinds—sludge from sewers, ash from incinerators, yard waste and building material from residences—and do so to make sure that nothing escapes beyond the landfill boundary.  But since they are difficult to contain and control, this tends to happen, which is why you need laborers working for little money, picking up paper, repairing gas and leachate lines, paving roads, and so on. This is what I did for nine months, and until I did it, I didn’t appreciate how intricate an activity landfilling is,” the author spoke of his firsthand experiment.

Why so much trash these days?  Our society’s appetite for standardization is partly to blame.  Not only does it create waste out of any defective item, it causes the addition of packaging.

“Reproducible sameness means we want commodities to be exactly the same as previous ones we’ve bought and as future ones we might buy. The rise of packaging can be explained as a result of this commitment to sameness.”

It’s no secret that most of humanity has an antipathy toward change.  But, there are costs and unpleasantries associated with that.  Yet for now, we have collectively decided it is all worth it.