Cheap electronics costs the Earth

Electronic materials have become so cheap, so small and so tightly bound together through planned obsolescence design practices, that their end-of-life value is negligible. The result is that fewer than 20% of digital devices are recycled. Even in the case where devices are recycled, often less than 30% of usable materials are actually recovered because of the way the devices are designed and the type of materials used.

Cheap electronics costs the Earth, and it will go on costing the Earth for thousands of years, with each year the problem getting bigger because this stuff is the absolute opposite of organic. It will never nourish new life but rather poison existing life. The poor people who work with it are so desperate that they will take 10-20 years off their lives breathing the toxic fumes of e-waste, handling the corrosive acids, so that they can earn enough to buy their next meal.

If these poor people are very lucky, they will have a machine to shred the laptops and smartphones. “The process can sometimes use a machine like a giant wood shredder,” Andy Farnell explains. “It unleashes an enormous amount of particulate matter, micro plastics just spewing out of that, heavy metals. Anything that those goods are made of, including the forever chemicals: phenol, multi-polyfluorinated hydrocarbons, stuff like that. It’s going to make a miasma of dust. But worse is when it’s not done by machines. Because who’s going to do it? It’s usually young kids. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year-old kids with sledgehammers, literally smashing this stuff up. You’ve got cathode ray screens being broken, and all the dust that comes out of that.”

Young children like Darsh and Samesh (not their real names), two ten-year-old Indian boys who work 10-hour days with three other boys in a small e-waste workshop outside Delhi, India. Darsh and Samesh spend their days smashing monitors with hammers. “We have been doing this since two years,” Darsh explains to documentary filmaker SVTC, Chintan, and IMAK. “Earlier we used to collect. Now, we are into dismantling.” As he breaks each monitor, Darsh inhales the toxic dust as he picks up the aluminum seal and brackets that fall off the smashed monitor. These monitors could have been from anywhere in the world, from Ireland, Denmark, the USA. They are bought for about 20 cents each.

When the electronics have been shredded and pulverized into a toxic mess, what happens then? “What we need to do with it now is extract the metals from it, which means washing it with acid—nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and also things like sodium cyanide—compounds which will pull out these metals into a slurry,” Andy explains. “And then the very difficult task is to separate the valuable metals.”

If this shredding had been done with modern equipment, then there are numerous techniques available. “There’s staged precipitation,” Andy explains, “where you can use various compounds that will, say, cause the gold to precipitate out. Or the silver or copper or whatever. Or you can use these resin columns, like big chromatography columns, which will attach the salts to the right parts. And then you can wash that off and reuse them. And then there’s this new technology. It’s old but it’s being made real in Canada, which is electrostatic precipitation.”

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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