Modern economies are based on waste

The secret to the “success” of modern economies has been the deliberate creation of the maximum quantity of waste. Waste is the business model. The more waste you can create, the more new products you can sell. The more you get people to think of what they have as old and uncool, the more you get them to throw away stuff, the more new products can be sold.

We are wasting the environment for the sake of frivolous consumption. Plastic is deliberately designed to be trashed and thus it is not surprising that our oceans contain 20,000 pieces of plastic for every child, woman and man living on this planet. Technology is made to be trashed; deliberately designed to have the shortest life possible and deliberately designed so that it cannot be efficiently recycled. Pollution and waste are everywhere, and e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and the most toxic.

We dump much of our e-waste in poor countries in order that it will poison poor people instead of poisoning the rich people who used it. Of course, we can’t say that, so it gets sent there secretly or we pretend that in fact we are sending them these wonderful “second-hand” products.

When I asked researcher Kaustubh Thapa about the global fake second-hand market for electronics, he replied, “This has sadly become the process of exporting waste management responsibility somewhere else. We asked 24 experts in Nigeria to estimate what percentage of the second-hand products come as electronic waste. They said that about 41% of mobile phones and tablets that come to Nigeria are in fact electronic waste; they don’t function, and for the rest that function, they only last about seventeen months, and then become electronic waste.

“We also examined how they checked for the functionality of electronics. We went to a Dutch harbor and we saw a volunteer who was just testing random devices by plugging them in the electric socket. If he sees a green light, it works. But that is not the case. If I can turn my computer on but the motherboard doesn’t work or the hard drive doesn’t work, that is not a functional item.

“If you look at the electronic items shipped from Europe to Nigeria, then reuse is actually not sustainable. It’s causing social and ecological harm. It has sadly been a way to dump electronics far away. But at the same time, it could be better. Because when we went to Nigeria, we saw a lot of second-hand things being used, from airplanes, to cars, to all sorts of electronic equipment. About 50% of all phones used in Nigeria are second hand. So, this is also an opportunity to ship functional and durable second-hand items that can create benefit somewhere else.”

Reuse is great. Second-hand is great. But these products have to have long lives and they have to be repairable. We need laptops that last twenty years and smartphones that last ten years. We need electronics that, at their end of life, all their materials can be safely and easily disassembled and put to use as parts and materials for other products.

This is how it used to work for electronics and all other products no more than fifty years ago. We now live in this crazy, tech-driven, waste-maximizing world where the core purpose of every activity in the economy has become about how to help a billionaire buy a bigger yacht. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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.
Listen to episodes