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Cleaning Up the E-Waste Mess: Big Tech Needs to Do More

Originally posted on pcmag.

It’s unreasonable to expect that the problem of electronic waste—the smartphones, laptops, monitors, and TVs crowding landfills around the globe—can be solved at any scale by individuals. We need an industry-wide reckoning.

E-waste is one of the largest environmental problems the world faces. The amount of electronics that are disposed of each year is not fully quantified, but its impact is, in ever-accelerating climate change. As technology evolves, it exacerbates the problem with myriad new products. But it also can help with solutions.

When we’re talking about e-waste, we’re talking about items large and small, from a tiny outdated iPod found in the back of a drawer that gets tossed in the trash to a roomful of servers that have reached the end of their usefulness and are sent off for recycling. Whether these items are improperly sent to landfills or are properly processed so their parts can be reused, their disposal takes a toxic toll on the Earth and the humans who inhabit it.

Potential e-waste is all around you: the screen you’re reading this on, the tablet you use to stream shows, the smart washing machine in your basement. It’s the copiers and servers in your workplace. And it’s the very equipment that’s powering the internet, from its sources to the router that’s delivering this news to you.

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020Image: Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

The UN leads the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, which attempts to track the amount of e-waste in the world. It puts e-waste into six categories: temperature-exchange equipment (refrigerators, air conditioners), screens and monitors, lamps, large equipment (washing machines, copiers), small equipment (cameras, smart speakers), and small IT and telecommunications equipment (phones, routers). So much fits in these categories, and so much of it overwhelms landfills.

The Current State of E-Waste

The amount of e-waste is incalculable, because it’s undocumented. Electronics are embedded in every facet of our lives, but they have short life cycles. And when the time comes to replace a product, it is rarely disposed of in a way that would limit its impact on the environment, despite the fact that 71% of the world’s population is governed by some form of e-waste legislation.

When faced with throwing something in the trash or having to pack it up and ship or drive it to a recycling center, most people choose the simplest solution to their immediate problem. “We’ve found the largest barrier to proper e-waste recycling is education and general awareness,” said Wesley Poritz, founder of Big Sky Recycling. “Recycling plastics is confusing enough, so adding cell phones, chargers, computers, and other gadgets into the mix can be a bit overwhelming.” So the amount of electronics that sit in towering piles of trash is simply unknown.

The latest report from The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership calculates that in 2019 alone, the world produced 53.6 megatons of e-waste, and less than 18% of that was documented and recycled. The rate of production of electronics has outstripped the speed at which recycling efforts have grown, making for an ever-growing problem.

When e-waste is mixed with other trash, it ends up in a landfill or is incinerated. Either way, the toxic elements that lie within it are released. These can include mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, thallium, bromine flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and more. They seep into the ground, polluting it and, eventually, the large bodies of water they make their way to, causing contamination of the food chain and drinking water. And in being burned, e-waste releases the carcinogenic gas dioxin.

Is Recycling Really the Answer?

While it sounds like the cornerstone of responsible behavior regarding e-waste, recycling also takes a toll on the environment. Removing the precious and reusable metals within an item and its components is inherently a toxic process. And e-waste is not distributed equally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the regions that are stripped of their resources needed to manufacture electronics are where those electronics are dumped after they’re used. When products are discarded via recycling programs, they often end up in Asia, Africa, India, and South America, according to a UN report.

Because of the harm it causes to communities, repurposing e-waste is a motivating factor in many affected countries. It’s a hazard to the people who are tasked with breaking it down by hand without any protection. Frequently, these people are children. The National Commission For Protection of Child Rights in India recently found that children as young as eight are involved in segregating hazardous e-waste. Greenpeace has documented children in Ghana dismantling computers and TVs for the metals inside while the remaining plastic flames up, releasing toxic gases. Populations at large in places with unregulated dumping face ecological and health disasters with the contamination of their land and water. The entire planet is wrecked with the carbon consequences of transporting the devices to these places.

Veena Sahajwalla, professor of materials science at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has been working on the concept of creating small recycling facilities she calls microfactories, which can be easily installed in communities to encourage safer and more effective recycling. Microfactories don’t just recycle materials: They are capable of transforming them, too—say, turning extracted plastics into filaments for 3D printing.

One such microfactory is already up and running in Australia. The ability to create more of them near where waste is produced would be an ecological win, since it would eliminate the carbon toll from carting e-waste long distances and benefit the communities that find themselves the unwelcome recipients of others’ trash.

Southeast Asia is particularly plagued by the increasing amount of e-waste it imports. In Indonesia, town planner Nicholas Kamols and social entrepreneur Brad Clair have found a way to offset e-waste into helping an area where many lack electricity. The two created PowerWells, a home solar-power system made from discarded laptop batteries and perspex sourced from monitors and televisions.

The resulting power can operate lights, charge phones, and run some DC appliances. Families can pay for the system in local products such as bamboo poles and woven palm-leaf bags. Aside from reusing e-waste without having to break it down, PowerWells devices often serve as substitutes for burning kerosene, a practice that can cause considerable harm to humans.

No major manufacturers are partnering with programs like PowerWells, which is a missed opportunity on many fronts. The PowerWells concept could be expanded to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where only 47% of the population has access to electricity.

On a smaller scale, the hands-off approach of manufacturers can be beneficial. The small company Sabko Phone, for example, can operate relatively under the radar. This Lalitpur, Nepal, company buys second-hand phones, even broken ones, and restores them or uses them for parts. In a country without an e-waste policy that produces 28 metric kilotons of e-waste a year, it’s born of necessity.

The Right to Repair

Sabko might be tiny, but its methods bring up a huge issue: the right to repair. There isn’t pushback in this instance from the phone manufacturers, but in many places in the US and Europe, the legality and ability of consumers to repair tech they own is contested and in flux.

The European Union has made progress in its right-to-repair push, which is designed to reduce e-waste through extending the longevity of electronics. As of March 1, larger electronics like televisions and monitors that are sold in the European Union have to be repairable for at least 10 years, which means manufacturers must guarantee the production of spare parts. The EU is working to extend that legislation to ensure that smaller electronics—such as laptops, tablets, and phones—will have longer warranties and that purchasers and repair shops will have access to instructions and parts for repair.

In the US, right-to-repair lawsuits are rolling out across the country, as consumer advocacy groups fight for people to have access to the tools and information they need to repair their devices. But even the legality of opening owned devices to fix them is in question. Manufacturers have sometimes built language into license agreements that could put consumers at risk of lawsuits for simply trying to repair something they own.

Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. PIRG Campaign for the Right to Repair, said the tactics of manufacturers include refusing to make service information available or sell spare parts, as well as requiring their suppliers to refuse to sell parts to others, to lock devices with service keys or passwords, and to deny access to diagnostic tools.

“Not all of these restrictions have the impact of making repair impossible, but it does make it too costly or inconvenient in many cases,” Proctor said. With such hurdles, most people just replace their devices instead of repairing them, he said. Because such practices are so commonplace and are not transparent to consumers, many people just purchase new products instead of repairing their current ones. A lack of information is the biggest hurdle the movement faces.

“Our biggest challenges are growing public awareness and the intensity of the opposition against our efforts,” Proctor said. When asked about the right to repair, nearly 75% of Americans support it, he said, but nearly half do not even know about the issue. Yet their support is crucial, because there is formidable pressure on lawmakers—from manufacturers and the lobbyists they pay—to vote against right-to-repair legislation.

“Lawmakers have said their phones have blown up with opposition lobbyists as the legislation moves forward, and many lawmakers have said they were frankly stunned by the aggressive nature of the opposition in their lobbying,” Proctor said. “Lawmakers deal with many sensitive topics, and yet they are still surprised at the corporate opposition to right to repair. It will take a lot of public engagement to overcome the onslaught of industry lobbying.”

The fight is worthwhile, though. “Repairing electronics and keeping them around for as long as possible is the first line of defense to preventing e-waste, creating a circular economy, and reducing your environmental impact,” said Big Sky Recycling’s Poritz.

The Vicious Replacement Cycle

Manufacturers have a list of reasons for discouraging device repair by consumers or third parties—privacy, safety, and so on—but one argument rings true: that even if repair were easy and accessible, people would still be likely to move on to a new device instead of fixing the one they have. It’s a mentality that the industry has been very successful in creating by introducing replacement devices at regular intervals, which last only until the next ones are released. Combined with how few people even bother to recycle the devices they put aside, it’s likely that even if the right to repair was the law of the land, it would make a negligible difference in the amount of e-waste generated each year.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the right to repair should be pushed aside. Any increment of a solution is better than none. But it does highlight that the onus of e-waste is so often put on those who purchase electronics and not on the companies that produce them. It’s unreasonable to expect that the massive problem of e-waste can be solved at any scale by individuals. No matter how much they do, whether they’re cutting down on personal purchases, trying to extend the life of electronics, or recycling when they have an item that doesn’t work for them or someone else, that’s not going to solve e-waste. There has to be an industry-wide reckoning about product obsolescence, both in terms of how quickly devices die and how frequently new releases occur.

“We often talk about the damage of electronic waste, but the energy and pollution of mining and manufacturing new gadgets pose a huge threat,” Proctor said.

Prolonging Product Lifespans

The most effective way to deal with e-waste is not to create it. Because capitalism demands capital, though, there is not going to be some worldwide slowdown in manufacturing goods. But some companies can and are reducing the obsolescence of their products.

Laptop maker Framework is producing a modular Windows laptop with swappable parts. It has the look of a MacBook, but unlike Apple products, which notoriously can’t be repaired or upgraded by their owners, nearly every part of the laptop can be replaced or upgraded at home. Laptops normally last for three to five years, and considering that they’re the most popular form of computer, the rate of disposal is disastrous.

The Framework Laptop is not the first attempt at a modular version of a widely disposed-of electronic item. In 2015, Google announced a modular phone, Project Ara, that was supposed to be on the market within two years. But the idea was abruptly brought to an end in 2016 with no official word as to why from the company; the unofficial explanation was that Project Ara was a victim of Google streamlining its hardware offerings.

Modular electronics have their place in reducing e-waste, though manufacturers have to overcome the hurdles of just how much electronics repair the average consumer can handle on their own. Fairphone does not shy away from the challenge. It makes the Fairphone 3, a phone that is both modular and easily repairable. Each phone ships with a mini screwdriver, and spare parts are available on the company’s site. It gets a 10 out of 10 from iFixit for repairability.

For its part, phone manufacturer Teracube has designed a phone that’s made to last longer than most. The Teracube 2e, which is made partly of recycled materials, has a 4,000mAH battery that can be easily replaced and a four-year warranty that covers repairs.

“A report we did last year found that if we held on to our phones one year longer on average, the emissions reductions would be equivalent to taking 636,000 cars off the road and would reduce manufacturing material demand by 42.5 million pounds per day,” Proctor said.

Big Tech Should Take Bigger Steps Toward Change

While smaller companies work to get their message out, the behemoths churning out products that swiftly become e-waste are slow to act.

Apple, which famously has devices whose smooth, enclosed surfaces don’t allow for easy consumer repair, has opted to eliminate accessories from some of its product packaging. The company stopped including chargers and EarPods with the iPhone 12 and power adapters with the Apple Watch Series 6. An EU report found that chargers for portable devices are responsible for 12,000 tons of e-waste on average per year, but compared with how many Apple products are quickly discarded for the latest ones, this is minuscule given what the company could accomplish.

Tyler Kruse, a spokesperson for Greenpeace USA, is quick to say that Apple’s policies are not greenwashing, though. “Apple has a wide range of environmental initiatives, and we recognize real progress in many areas, like the company’s use of renewable energy.”

That said, Apple could do more as a company, particularly with repairability. “Apple has made progress on repairability of its products, but has traditionally lagged behind competitors, sometimes actively working against efforts to allow individuals or third parties to fix products,” said Kruse.

Amazon, too, is creating a raft of products that do not lend themselves to being repaired. And while the company has created a shipping empire, it has not put that same energy into retrieving and recycling electronics. The official Amazon recycling program is handled by a third party, which offers a very outdated form that generates a shipping label and a drop-off component with just 10 locations nationwide.

“When Samsung agreed to take back its flawed (and fire-prone) Galaxy Note devices in 2017, that showed tech companies could take back and refurbish/recycle devices at a large scale internationally; and it showed that there’s strong support among customers that companies do so,” Kruse said.

In short, the real power of change for e-waste lies where it begins: with tech companies. Kruse said that manufacturers should put the energy that they spend creating relentless demand for new devices into more globally beneficial business models. “We believe tech companies have the capability to create virtually zero-waste circular product life cycles.”

Source: pcmag

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