Normative Narratives

Green News: The Needed E-Recycling Movement

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Artist rendition of an e-waste pile from the movie “Idiocracy”

If you live in the developed world, chances are you either have or know someone who has a drawer, cabinet, or closet full of “e-waste”–a combination of old electronic devices and wires that serves absolutely no purpose but to take up space. Why does our e-waste get hoarded? I believe it is because e-recycling options are few and far between.

The head of the United Nations body tasked with setting the global environmental agenda today stressed the need to limit the use of dangerous chemicals and to find a solution to the masses of electronic waste building up around the world, as a Conference of Parties to three major Conventions on the subject began in Geneva today.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told journalists that the “tsunami of e-waste rolling out over the world” not only accounted for a large portion of the world’s non-recyclable “waste mountain” but also needed dealing with because many elements found in electronic equipment are potentially hazardous to people and the environment.

“Never mind that it is also an economic stupidity because we are throwing away an enormous amount of raw materials that are essentially re-useable,” said Mr. Steiner. “Whether it is gold, silver or some of the rare earths that you have heard about perhaps in recent years, it is still an incredible amount.”

Mr. Steiner said that the amount of some such materials that are available above ground in unused electronics now exceeds the amount still in the ground and he looked to the potential of the Basel Convention to help access ‘urban mines’ by working to better inform people of how to dispose of their e-waste.

“Annually, one million people die from occupational poisoning,” Mr. Steiner said, referring to the effects of the use of chemicals on people’s bodies. “This is something that is, in this day and age, not only unnecessary it’s really intolerable. And this is why the sound management of chemicals is something that has brought Governments, civil society but also the private sector and the chemical industry together.”

One of the more well known theories of Technology, “Moore’s Law“, states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits has doubled every year since their invention, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future–this “law” has remained relevant for 50 years. While Moore’s law may sound like techno-babble that doesn’t affect the average person, it has a lot to do with our collective e-hoarding problem; due to some combination of technological innovation and planned obsolescence, the viable life of electronic products is incredibly short.

Between consumption patterns in developed countries and efforts to bridge the “digital-divide” in the developing world, the world’s e-waste problem will only get worse if left unaddressed. Absent a systematic way of dealing with our e-waste, we will continue hoarding rare-earth metals while simultaneously extracting them from the ground (with all the environmental degradations that accompany resource mining).

E-recycling can also help lower the costs of producing the stripped-down versions of smart-phones and tablets that play an important role in reducing poverty in poor countries. Due to the value of rare earth metals and the costs of extraction, e-recycling could potentially provide a revenue stream for cash strapped municipalities.

So we come to the need to promote global e-recycling efforts. To be effective, this movement should involve all concerned private and public sector actors. 

I would like to end this blog with a personal anecdote. I have a broken computer in my apartment that has been sitting there for weeks as I try to figure out how to dispose of it in a responsible way–What exactly should I do?

If your answer involves going online and researching how to dispose of e-waste where I live, then I say to you this unnecessary burden is representative of the exact problem I am railing against. Most people do not have the time or desire to take this extra step. Instead, they will just throw out their e-waste, trashing valuable resources, necessitating further extraction of rare earth materials, and endangering public health.

It is not as if we are waiting for some technological breakthrough to address this issue. A solution as simple as e-recycling bins or designated days for e-waste pickup could help solve this looming global problem.

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