November 24, 2014

Sci + Tech | September 30, 2013
An electronic wasteland
The importance of recycling used electronics
Written by | Visual by Sylvan Hamburger

There’s no better symbol of ‘noughties’ consumerism than the iPhone: the quintessential smartphone, coveted by millions and the pride and joy of many a teenager. But after a few years of hard use, these status symbols often get unceremoniously trashed, in a process that’s creating a growing problem for the economy and environment alike.

Technology, in general, has a fairly terrible lifespan. The components are not built to last – the lithium-ion batteries that power most electronics have a shelf life of around two years. Additionally, the rapid improvements in computing power render modern software too resource-needy for old machines (just think of trying to install the latest version of Windows on a PC from a few years ago).

As such, consumers often find themselves upgrading laptops and phones every few years. The average owner hangs onto their smartphone for two years, and a laptop for only a year longer. It’s a practice essentially enforced by manufacturers: official software updates, like Apple’s latest iOS 7, tend to only roll out to the latest generations of a device. Bought a cutting-edge iPhone 3GS in 2010? Sorry, but according to Apple, it’s too old to bother supporting nowadays.

The problem is only getting worse. In the past, the critical components of a computer – RAM, hard drive, and the like – were easily upgraded by folks at home, adding a few years of life onto a machine that was slowing down a little. Yet, with laptops getting increasingly thinner, less accessible and more self-contained, the years of being able to mod PCs (of which laptops are now the overwhelming majority) are quickly coming to an end: consumers are in thrall to the manufacturer. Mobile phone batteries, by far the most common point of failure, are often non-replaceable at home, meaning that when the battery of an otherwise perfectly good phone dies after two or three years, several hundred dollars’ worth of components go to the landfill.

That last comment about landfills is particularly pertinent. Not only are shrinking lifespans hurting consumer’s wallets, but it’s also a blight on the environment and the economy.

Electronic waste (‘e-waste’) is a big problem. An estimated 50 million tonnes is produced worldwide every year. Electronic products are often difficult to recycle, owing to the wide mix of materials used in their manufacture, some of which are inherently toxic. Old-school cathode ray tube televisions, for example, contain bromide and lead, and the aforementioned lithium-ion batteries can cause serious contamination if not disposed of properly.

As a result, recycling levels as a percentage of electronic waste are pitiful. Worldwide, only around 20 per cent goes to recycling, leaving vast tracts to landfills. For cellphones – a rapidly increasing area of waste – the number falls to a pathetic 8 per cent.

Due to the cost of recycling in an environmentally friendly manner, governments are loath to take on the extra cost of recycling e-waste for free. Some efforts have been made in Canada. Product stewardship programmes, administered on a provincial level, obligate manufacturers to bear the cost of recycling their used products by utilizing a series of free drop-off points throughout the province.

Although these measures are a step in the right direction, they’re not necessarily a remedy. Much of the ‘recycling’ is shipped overseas, to third-world countries where regulations are looser and the disposal far from green. Waste is often melted down to recover valuable materials, releasing toxic emissions and damaging both the environment and the workers during the recycling process.

Thankfully, old electronics aren’t all doom and gloom. With recycling so difficult and landfill objectionable on a number of levels, some individuals and organizations simply encourage increasing the functional lifespan of devices.

Some of this happens naturally through the marketplace. Sales of secondhand smartphones have exploded in recent years, and will likely double in the coming decade. According to Toni Sacconaghi, a industry analyst at Bernstein, a financial research firm, “analysis suggests that the used smartphone market is poised to explode – we estimate that the market will grow from 53 million to 257 million units over the next five years.” While that might not be great news for manufacturers hoping to push sales ever higher, polishing up devices and selling them refurbished is good news for consumers and groaning landfills alike.

Admittedly, there’s also a huge proportion of e-waste that no one in their right mind would buy. Still, a laptop that’s broken for you might provide some use to others, even if they’re not exactly willing to pay for it. That’s the principle behind the Freecycle network, a website that seeks to hook up people who are trying to dump unneeded stuff with folks who could use it.

The principle is absurdly simple – like Craigslist, but where everything is free – but the reality is more dramatic than most expect. A quick search of the Montreal area throws up the expected menagerie of mouldy armchairs and questionable curtains, but also a surprising number of perfectly serviceable items, from year-old IKEA wardrobes to printers, calculators, and even a 32-inch TV.

Speaking to various Montreal Freecyclers, it’s clear that the motivation is a mixture of altruism and laziness. Sarah, who was offloading the aforementioned TV, said,  “I’m moving out, and rather than trying to sell it to a shop or my neighbour, I wanted to give back to the community I’ve lived in for the last 15 years.” The story for others was slightly different: according to Guillame, who was offloading an old printer and a desk, “I looked into eBay, but it would’ve taken far too long for a few dollars. With Freecycle, I put them on the internet, no picture, and they were gone the next day.”

McGill is making an impressive effort in this area. Battery recycling programs exist, with dozens of pick-up points across campus; the sustainability policy also encourages donating old cellphones to a Canada-wide programme that donates them to women’s shelters across the country. Additionally, an organization called McGill Reboot redistributes used electronics across campus to promote reusing.

Despite these encouraging efforts to combat electronic waste at both grassroots and governmental levels, the problem at large is still largely unattended. As the volume of e-waste grows, manufacturers continue hastening the product cycle, with scant attention to making their devices easier to recycle – Apple last year removed its products from the Green Electronics Council’s leading eco-friendliness certification programme. After all, when you’ve got $94 billion sitting in offshore accounts, who has time for the environment?

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