We need to do more about electronic waste

When it comes to making products, the technology industry has a circular economy. It goes to poorer countries and pays them as little as possible for the raw materials. Once the products are old, it dumps the e-waste back in poor countries where it will be ‘recycled’. The recycling generally involves burning the e-waste in open pits with all the pollution and ill health that causes.

This ‘circular economy’ is really wonderful for rich countries. We can claim that we have achieved continuous economic growth while at the same time improving our environment: cleaner air, cleaner water, etc. Outsourcing pollution is a great branding strategy. At every step, our big brands make the absolute maximum effort to pay people in poor countries as little as possible, work them non-stop and then poison them, their children and communities.

Every year we produce enormous and rapidly growing quantities of e-waste. Less than 20% of it is recycled and most of that ‘recycling’ is crude and highly polluting. Yet in e-waste are huge mineral resources. If we were recycling properly, we could ‘urban mine’ many of the raw materials we need, thus reducing the need to do more damage to the environment.

The technology industry has gotten away with behaving atrociously because for years it has had a halo over its head. It’s modern, it’s geeky, it’s techy, it’s computery, it’s smartphony. It couldn’t be this producer of highly disposable poisonous products, could it?

The wasteful behavior of the tech industry is both deliberate and deeply cynical. Maximizing waste maximizes profits. The more waste, the more money tech makes. That’s the bottom line. Another word for ‘innovation’ is ‘trash.’ Most new features are a marketing con, rather than anything even approaching a necessity. Everything must change quickly not because everything needs to change quickly but because that’s how Apple and Samsung et al maximize short-term return. We have an e-waste economy that must trash the environment in order to maximize profit. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I was part of all this, perfectly happily changing my phone and computer every two years. “If a phone is kept in use for at least five years, instead of the typical two to three years, the carbon impact per year of use could be cut by 50 per cent and the water impact could be halved,” a 2020 UK Green Alliance report states.

We must think very differently about technology. This idea that to race into the future you must be allowed to break everything, to trash everything and to waste everything must be challenged. In making our future, technology should not be destroying it.

We have a cult of innovation, a cult of change. Cults are bad.

Hold on to things. Keep things until they break and then fix them. And if you can’t get them fixed, complain like hell to the brands, to the politicians. Make some noise. Most tech products are designed so that they cannot be repaired, so that it is almost impossible to recycle them efficiently. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s start changing our culture of waste, our culture of disposability, our culture of convenience. We must think, design and behave for the future. We must make things that last and make things last.

Design for a circular economy, UK Green Alliance (PDF)

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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