E-waste recycling should be a last resort

We cannot have an environment that will last if we don’t design to last. We must design buildings to last hundreds of years. We must design smartphones to last at least ten years. We must design laptops to last at least twenty years.

Big Tech profits from and is a key driver of the extinction of life on Earth. Greed and short-term thinking drive Big Tech decision making. Big Tech spends tens of millions greenwashing about how it’s so clean and green, but nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the PR sheen, Big Tech is a dirty, toxic business, and there is nothing more toxic or dirty than the Big Tech business model: planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is a form of ecocide, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future we will see Big Tech executives on trial for crimes against Nature. Like a well-honed criminal enterprise, planned obsolescence is designed so that it leaves few fingerprints, but as clever as these people are, they cannot forever hide the mountains of e-waste that are piling up every year.

E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world and is by far the most deadly. E-waste will account for about 80% of the toxicity of a particular dump. Right now, we are producing over 50 million tons of e-waste every year—enough to build a Great Wall of China. At the pace it is growing, within 10-15 years we will be producing over 100 million tons.

“The electronics industry works through ‘planned obsolescence’ to encourage demand and novelty of products,” Graham Rihm, founder of Pennsylvania-based RoadRunner Recycling, replied in relation to a statement I made to him about how e-waste recycling should be a last resort. “Instead of offering completely new products that have been redesigned to work differently or better, electronics are made to only last a specific amount of time, regardless of new designs being available.”

“Take, for instance, smartphones,” Graham continues. “New designs are released every one to two years like clockwork. The changes in each model typically focus on only one area of efficiencies, such as improvements to the camera or battery life. A new phone rarely is completely redesigned to offer the very best features across the board. To get the full benefit of a redesign, a person has to wait for a few versions to pass before upgrading. Phones don’t need complete redesigns every year, but we as consumers should not feel pressured to get a piece of technology that is only marginally better.”

Deep down, we all know this. Deep down, we all know this is wrong. But, as my wife said to me recently, “I know that the marketing is manipulating me to do things that are not good for me and not good for the environment, but it’s so hard to resist because they’re so clever and manipulative.”

To make one smartphone requires the mining of 90 kg of materials. It requires 14,000 liters of water. It causes 60 kg of CO2, not to mention other harms. That’s one smartphone. 15 billion smartphones have been made and dumped since 2007.

Globally, the recycling rate for smartphones is an atrocious 10%. It gets worse. Of the 10% that are recycled, you can only get back about 30% of reusable materials because of deliberate design decisions made by Big Tech. That means that, of the 15 billion smartphones trashed since 2007, of the 204 billion tons of water and 1.35 billion tons of mined material used in their manufacture, we can only retrieve 3% of reusable materials.

We are mining our environment to extinction. If this isn’t a crime against Nature, if this isn’t ecocide, what is?

The Restart Project

RoadRunner Recycling

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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