Design for the materials, design for reuse

To survive, humans must develop a vastly greater respect for Earth’s materials. Nowhere is this respect lacking more than in Big Tech, an industry whose very foundations are built on the destruction of the maximum quantity of materials possible in the shortest time possible in the pursuit of the maximum profit possible.

There follows an interview with Graham Rihn, CEO and founder of RoadRunner Recycling, a leader in end-to-end sustainable waste management.

Q: Why is it that if e-waste contains so many precious metals, less than 20% of it is recycled?
A: One factor is an inability to toss devices into the general recycling bin. The effort to find a recycling center that accepts e-waste can be more than people want to expend. After all, tossing something in the trash is much easier than researching a drop-off, driving to it, and ensuring the piece is handled correctly. For some items, recyclability is not communicated. Education and ease are the biggest reasons we see recycling rates plummet. People don’t know how to recycle the items and don’t have the time to go through the work to discover where to drop off electronics. Luckily, some brands are acknowledging these difficulties. Some have created buy-back programs, drop-off locations, and even complete recycling programs for any electronic device.

Q: I was talking to a smartphone manufacturer and they were saying that even when e-waste is recycled, only about 30% of usable materials are recovered. Why is that?
A: Many electronics manufacturers will claim that the materials they use are recyclable, but processing materials back to a state of use is costly and very dangerous. If recycled improperly, devices expose workers to certain toxic materials while dismantling and recycling the products, such as lead, mercury, and flame retardants. Beyond the genuine danger that those materials may cause, recycling electronics is also very complicated. Complications arise around recycling due to the sheer amount of chemicals to consider during manufacturing processes. Some devices can cost more to recycle than to make. Likewise, designs of these devices do not consider recycling at end-of-life. The product needs to work until the next iteration, but there is currently no thought to what becomes of the device after it has outlived its useful life.

Q: If a phone or laptop is dumped in a landfill, what are the potential toxic impacts on soil, air, and water—in five years, 50 years, and 500 years?
Q: Lead, mercury, flame retardants, lithium, and other highly toxic materials go into making electronic devices such as phones or laptops. When dumped into landfills, the device’s toxins leach into the soil, water, and air. Ultimately, pieces of those chemicals could end up in our food supply, livestock, water, and even the air we breathe. These chemicals cause kidney failure, cancers, brain damage, and other disorders. However, improperly recycling the devices can also lead to these dangerous consequences.
We must design for the materials, not simply the products. How do we design so that the materials we use in making a particular product or service can be easily reused, so that they will have the longest useful life possible? This also applies to data and visual designs. Single-use data, single-use visual designs, are like single-use plastic: a huge, unnecessary and damaging waste. A sustainable system focuses far more on what happens after creation than on the ‘creative’ process itself.

RoadRunner Recycling

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