The flip side of a world awash with gadgets and IT equipment is an enormous volume of electronic waste generated by human consumption. The amount of global e-waste produced annually over the past five years has been estimated (PDF) to be as much 49 million metric tons in aggregate, constituted of cell phones, appliances, computers, medical devices, and more. By the end of 2014, that annual amount may have increased to as much as 72 million metric tons of e-waste, driven by increasingly frequent upgrade cycles for consumers, businesses, and governments.
While the types of devices that people own are shifting with time and technological change, the total number of them in circulation keeps piling up, along with concerns about what to do with them.
As more humans move up the socioeconomic ladder, they will expand the market for electronics and appliances, further increasing the creation of e-waste. This particular kind of trash is, unfortunately, particularly problematic.
The impacts of technology on society can be measured in more subtle ways than jobs and innovation, challenges to ethics, enhanced consumer choice, government transparency, or culture, though all of these issues matter quite a bit to those affected. Improper disposal of e-waste leads to increased health risks for children, injury risks to people dismantling it, and broader harms to the environment from the dispersal of heavy metals and toxic byproducts. The sourcing of the rare earth elements used in electronics is also problematic on multiple levels, as many years of reporting on conflict minerals has demonstrated. Recent efforts mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act to combat conflict minerals with corporate disclosures, however, have run into challenges in the courts, with rules remaining in limbo as a result.
In recent years, multiple entities are making efforts to mitigate the issue, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, the World Health Organization, the StEP Initiative, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and the Telecommunications Industry Association.
E-cycling electronics can help with multiple issues, including recovering metals before they move into the environment and subsequently making such metals available to manufacturers. According to the EPA, every million cell phones e-cycled can recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium.
Despite the efforts of governments and industry, unfortunately, the majority of e-waste is not being e-cycled. Research suggests that the rate of e-waste recycling globally (PDF) was about 13% in 2009, with estimates of e-cycling in the US ranging from 13.6% to 26.6%. That means an awful lot of e-waste is not being recovered and ending up unused, or worse, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.
As with so many challenges in this modern world, increased connectivity and outlets of creativity offer opportunities to improve upon this state of affairs. A new initiative looks to tap into the power of open innovation and the maker movement to diminish and even prevent the creation of e-waste.
The Green Electronics Challenge
The Green Electronics Challenge is an international online competition that encourages people in the US and China to submit ideas for reducing e-waste at Instructables.com. According to the StEP Initiative, China and the US lead the world in e-waste, producing 11.1 million and 10 million metric tons annually, respectively.
"I don't know of any other initiative like this," said Emily Parker, in an interview. Parker, the digital diplomacy advisor at the New America Foundation, has been helping to lead the project. "We've been working for a very long time to get it off the ground. We want to encourage DIY innovation, and also to welcome newcomers to the makerspace. One of the goals of the project is to redefine the concept of waste. Yesterday's cell phone can be tomorrow's treasure! The challenge is to use old electronic components to make something new. Hackerspaces in the US and China will be participating, and there will be e-waste related workshops in both countries."
Ideas can include upcycling, where someone hacks an electronic product to create something new, a repaired electronic product, a new sustainable electronic product, or artwork from used electronics. Prizes include collections of useful tools.
The submissions for the competition are due by May 31, 2014. The competition will be judged by author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, Arizona State professor Mitzi Montoya, Sun Hong Bin, dean of educational affairs at Tsinghua University, Kyle Wiens, cofounder and CEO of iFixit, and Victor Koo, CEO of Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. The challenge is the result of a partnership between Arizona State University, Tsinghua University, New America Foundation, and Slate Magazine. To date, the competition has 82 entries.
"Some participating makerspaces also aim to provide free e-waste materials for people to use in the competition," said Parker. "For example, Arizona State University's Chandler Innovation Center/Tech Shop is inviting local individuals, civic organizations, small businesses, and others to donate their used and obsolete computers and computer parts, hard drives, monitors, printers, scanners, cables, etc. and other electronic components such as cell phones."
Critics of the maker movement may scoff at this effort, as with previous expressions of DIY energy, perhaps suggesting that such efforts are band-aids that will not make up for the failure of societies to address the larger environmental issues that this aspect of the growth of consumer society represents. A contest like this could enable people to submit an idea or engage in "clicktivism" instead of changing their own behavior in a way that's considered inconvenient. It's certainly fair to say that radical self-sufficiency won't be enough alone — e-waste regulation, enforcement, and activism will matter — but then complex societal issues are rarely solved by one initiative, contest, or competition.
What's much more likely is that one or two ideas or approaches will come out of the effort that have genuine promise to reduce the amount of e-waste being produced or convert it into re-usable forms. There's a strong economic argument behind improvements to our ability to re-use and e-cycle devices that should attract many people.
In the same way that tinkering is producing notable advances in DIY medical devices that save lives, like a doctor creating a rural hospital from scrap, makers around the world may find a way to recover scarce materials and connect more people to one another by upcycling. If so, we'll all be better off: as more electronic devices break and decay, the world is going to need a fixer movement, too.
Also see on TechRepublic
The depressing truth about e-waste: 10 things to know
- Photos: Circuit board jewelry is creative use for dead computer hardware
- 10 things to do with old computing equipment
- 10 things you should do to securely dispose of computers
- How conflict minerals funded a war that killed millions, and why tech giants are finally cleaning up their act
- Photos: The dangerous work of conflict mineral mining in the Congo
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.