E-waste

The bag of used batteries under my sink is about to burst. My old TV and VCR are tucked behind the bed. Outdated phones and answering machines have colonized my linen closet. And I’m doing everything possible to maintain the health and well-being of my aging laptop, in hopes of delaying its already certain fate in my e-waste graveyard. Multiply my relatively small stash of technical refuse, which in the near future could become part of our valuable materials stream, by the 300 million residents of the United States alone, and you get a sense of the problem.

For years, Greenpeace, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, and others have been talking about the need to reclaim, reuse, and recycle modern society’s ever multiplying—and always more seductive—electronic products. The graphic story of the Chinese town of Guiyu—with its poisoned water, soil, and air, and where people use primitive methods to break up illegally dumped electronics—shocked 60 Minutes audiences. Hearing about this toxic disaster, which was referred to as “the Chernobyl of electronic waste,” my friends and I shared our outrage, followed by a gray, unsettling sense of frustrating powerlessness. But things are never as bleak as they seem.

Even a cursory search of Web sites yields inspiring examples, such as Japan’s stringent recycling laws. Closer to home, in states from east to west, hopeful policies are being implemented by government agencies like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Apple tells loyal customers to bring their old iPods to any company store to receive a 10 percent discount on a new one (though there’s no word yet on where those old machines will go). Some young techies in New York, the principals of a company called Valiant, recently held a competition to design the “4th Bin,” which would accommodate electronics disposal in the city. When they asked me to join a jury of designers, I jumped at the chance, knowing that the best competitions are conversation starters. (And we need to talk.)

There were 99 entries for bins, 87 for logos. And what they revealed was all that we don’t know—and need to learn quickly—about recycling our e-waste. You can’t just throw this stuff away, dump it into another bin, and hope to have done your duty. The bin needs to separte electronics, keep them safe from vandals, and protect them so they can be expertly dis-assembled and put back into our technical-materials stream. When you break up a CRT or an iPod, for instance, you create the potential for some serious toxic spills—the people of Guiyu know this first hand.

It turns out that today’s garbage isn’t like the trash we’re used to disposing. E-waste needs a whole new system of solutions. In fact, it is begging for some serious reimagining. It’s not enough for designers to come up with another sleek bin or snazzy logo. It requires the design community, and their expert advisers, to create a big idea by working with consumers, parts manufacturers (electronics are among our truly internationally made products, so each supplier country has a share in this problem), assemblers (whose brand name is on your phone or computer), retailers, marketers, and local governments (with their conservative sanitation departments). If ever there was a need for a whole-systems approach, this would be it. We’re waiting. In the meantime, toxic e-trash is taking over our homes.

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