How to solve e-waste: ultimate producer responsibility

We need a radically new model that properly measures the true and total cost of materials, particularly their long-term cost to the environment and the life systems that depend on it.

E-waste is particularly dangerous because of its high toxicity and because, right now, it is designed so that the materials in it cannot be easily reused or recycled. From an environmental point of view, the technology industry has become infinitely worse over the last fifty years. Its designs are deliberately destructive to the environment because they are driven by innovation-at-all-costs, short-term profit maximization and planned obsolescence.

One part of the solution is to make brands and producers ultimately responsible for the care and reuse of every single material they use. We need a global zero waste policy.

“What we propose is that instead of producers being responsible for management of electronic waste in their own countries, they should be responsible globally,” Kaustubh Thapa told me. “For example, if an Apple product or a Philips product goes to Nigeria, then no matter how many cycles of use and reuse the product goes through, Philips or Apple should be responsible for the sound management of the waste. And I think this is only fair if you consider the justice and equity aspect of the circular economy, which sadly has been quite left out from the discourse. The social dimension, international dimension, justice, equity… For us, these are very important topics to be included if we’re talking about transition. To make it fair and ethical and not just exploitative.

“We’re trying to create a space where the value system is not just money and profit maximization or efficiency but also solidarity and inclusion and equality,” Kaustubh continues. “And these kinds of things are sadly not so comfortable for a lot of people. It’s a testament to how much we need to change the whole political and economic system to include values like solidarity and ethics in our day-to-day life and not just profit and money – these materialistic values.”

When it comes to the ability to repair and reuse materials and product components, things have gotten much, much worse. “When we talk to people who do repairs, they prefer the older generation computers,” Kaustubh explains. “I remember growing up just replacing my hard drive. Now, things are designed so that it’s single use. When it doesn’t work it has to be taken to the factory.

“The whole recycling sector is very mysterious. Nobody knows what percentage is recycled. It’s very hard to understand what happens when the products are recycled. The whole value chain is not transparent, not accountable, because its lacks the principles of justice and ethics. It can be made better, but nobody cares.”

When it comes to e-waste, we need to return value to the end-of-life process. Currently, there’s very little value in recycling e-waste. “It’s sadly the case,” Kaustubh agrees. “We do not factor in the social and ecological harm that goes into the designing phase of a product. All that is accounted for is money. We don’t value eco systems. We don’t value justice. We don’t value human health. If we were to value those sorts of thing, then tomorrow all companies would really push more circular and sustainable options, but sadly every value system boils down to money and profit maximization.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Any system created by humans can be changed by humans.

Kaustubh Thapa: E - waste : Ultimate Producer Responsibility podcast

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