An E-Waste Tsunami

There was a subtle irony to an event on electronic consumption and waste taking place at The New School’s location on 5th Avenue. Outside, the blue glow of smartphones danced down the street. Inside, photos depicting piles of ‘obsolete’ electronics, being picked and sorted by the urban poor in the outskirts of Delhi, India. As we waited for the panel discussion to begin, audience members reached for their phones; the extent to which technology has permeated our lives is astounding at times.

On Friday, March 11, students and community members gathered in a small auditorium for one of The New School’s thousands of events. The panel discussion, “E-waste Tsunami: Design & Policy Response” was organized in tandem with a documentary exhibition that was a collaboration between StudioFYNN and Parsons School of Design’s MFA Industrial Design program. The panel was moderated by Rama Chorpash, director of the MFA Industrial Design at Parsons School Of Design.

The discussion opened with Prasad Boradkar, professor of industrial design at Arizona State University. After making a joke about the dedication of an audience willing to talk about electronic waste (or “e-waste”) on a Friday night, he projected a photo of Apple’s flagship store on 5th Avenue, its glass spiral staircase ascending towards the light in an almost cosmic fashion. He spoke of the idea of object obsolescence–technological, planned, or simply psychological.

“A few things we have age well,” he said, “but most things we throw away.”

Boradkar examined the notion of “conspicuous waste,” the flipped side of conspicuous consumption, which is manifested in all industries–from cars to washing machines to electronics. “You say what you are by what you buy, but you also say what you are by what you throw out.”

In 2014, 100 new electronic devices connected to the Internet every second. By 2020, that number is expected to reach 250. The problem is growing especially exponentially in India and China, where in the last seven years, e-waste has grown eight-fold. While connectivity can be an asset in the developing world, little work has been done towards mitigating the harmful effects of chemicals and materials that often end up being shipped to the backyards of the world’s poorest.

Throughout the discussion were questions of ‘responsibility.’ Who is responsible for ensuring that developing nations don’t shoulder the burden of getting rid of our waste? Who is responsible for directing our ‘obsolete’ electronics towards recycling facilities, rather than trash heaps? Who is responsible for reducing this consumption and waste in the first place?

John S. Shegerian, co-founder of Electronic Recyclers International, mentioned California’s ARF–“advanced recycling fee”–that consumers pay alongside the purchase of a new electronic device. That fee goes from the place of purchase to the state budget, and helps fund efforts directed towards responsible disposal of electronics. He emphasized the need for companies and institutions to prioritize a “social bottom line,” saying, “This is really a group effort.”

Despite the harmful effects, co-author of the installation Shaun Fynn was quick to say that, while consumers may think they are throwing away their devices, in truth, “nothing goes to waste.” Much of the electronics are recycled and refurbished to some extent, the materials melted down and sold back to the mineral markets, but the difference is that this process may not be as efficient or sustainable as it could be.

To this, Chorpash asked, “Is waste the wrong word?”

“It is waste because the consumers have discarded it,” Singh responded. Technology products become waste when deemed unusable by the consumers, but their actual lifespan extends far beyond this timeline. Singh argued that trying to force individuals and families out of the informal labor market of “waste picking” for the sake of their health would have serious economic effects.

“They want their children to have better lives than they do, but taking these waste-pickers away from these environments would be very detrimental in many ways,” she said. Singh characterized the e-waste supply chain as a “delicate ecosystem,” involving many participants.

Outside in the lobby hung larger-than-life photographs of brown-skinned workers, processing heaps of rejected plastic and metal. One photo showed a pile of old desktop monitors stacked against a wall, their shapes wedged together like an M.C. Escher illustration. From the photos, it is clear that the existence of these waste-pickers is also infiltrated by machinery and technology, albeit in a very different way from the consumers. While the exhibition is rooted in data surrounding e-waste, the visceral imagery of the photography allows for greater recognition of the scope of the problem than one might ascertain from statistics, alone.

While the disposal of e-waste can certainly improve and enhanced corporate sustainability is needed, the root of the issue is the fact that we are often ignore the side effects of our consumption. With an ever-growing global population, mitigating waste in the first place is crucial in improving social and environmental sustainability. If designers and consumers both can lengthen their time horizons past the “use” phase of a product, the environment and its inhabitants will benefit.


Image originally published by S&S on March 23, 2016.


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