This book is such a good read and while it doesn’t focus solely on electronic waste – it is eye opening to understand how planned obsolescence started and how this business model still effects us today.
In “Made to Break”, Giles Slade examines the history of how obsolescence came to existence. Before the Industrial Revolution gave rise to manufacturing, society was not used to making more than it needed. With these machines that overproduced, companies needed a way to figure out how to stand out amongst the millions more options amongst consumers. That’s where packaging design, branding and logos came in. By placing a trademark symbol, consumers would think that products were of a certain quality.
The culture of disposable products came with the rise of machines. What used to be reused many times, was now made and promoted to be disposable. For example, handkerchief became disposable tissues, pocket watches became so easy to make they were $1 at some point, razors for shaving used to last a long time but were then converted to disposable ones. Fun fact – condoms used to be made of sheep intestines and would be reused! Then came the invention of rubber and rubber condoms! Who would’ve thought?!
The point is, companies advertised products in a way that society came to value and appreciate a product to be convenient and disposable. This is all a response to their worry of not being able to sell all that they were able to make.
TLDR vs: With this interactive, the objective is to communicate: (1) Digital devices require an inordinate amount of material and labor to mine and manufacture. From the mining sites to the clean room, there are thousands of hands, chemicals and minerals that make a technological product possible. In the process of creating them there is also large amounts of waste generated that give rise to health and environmental issues. (2) None of America’s current electronics recycling options are optimal – we need better solutions for recycling that don’t take for granted the insane amount of material and labor needed to create them
Main points to communicate:
The digital devices we use require an inordinate amount of labor, materials and waste to make which also give rises to environmental and health issues. Despite all the details, negative consequences, and work that goes into the creation of tech, our current options for recycling is neither sustainable nor sensical.
Our current options of disposing includes:
(A) Toss it in the regular trash, which will then end up in the landfill or incinerator. Both these options are harmful for the environment and human health because the hazardous chemicals, such as mercury, will leach into the environment, soil and air.
(B) The other option is to recycle, which is easy to think it is the ‘right’ thing to do. However, all the elements in a device don’t get dismantled and eventually these chips and electronic components that took so much effort to create get shredded and converted to material feedstock. All the hard work, precision and materials are simply shredded. Another possibility that happens when we recycle our devices is that recyclers could be exporting to other countries (i.e. Hong Kong, Ghana) with lax labor and environmental laws. This exportation of electronic waste is awful because people in these countries are scavenging and dismantling electronic devices in extremely unsafe ways (i.e. burning the wires to retrieve the metal inside, unsoldering by melting, etc) that are toxic to both their bodies and their environment (i.e. case study in Guiyu, China). U.S. hasn’t made the exportation of electronic products illegal yet, so recyclers are able to export without regulation and it becomes a behind-the-door system that is hard to track. There is an international treaty called the Basel Convention that makes the exporting and transboundary movements of hazardous waste illegal. However and stupidly, the United States is not currently a party to the Basel Convention. They signed the agreement in 1990, but has not yet ratified the Convention.
When an electronic item is recycled in America, it either becomes shredded and sorted into mineral feedstock or it is exported (without consumers knowing) to other countries where it is scavenged for pieces in extremely unsafe ways that are both damaging to human health and the environment. Seeing as how bad the exporting option is, I have thought about what happens if it does just end up in landfills? Would it be that bad? Answer is yes – it would be bad. I don’t know if it’s worse than exporting to countries with lax labor and environmental laws, but it’s pretty bad. If e-waste was in landfill there are many potentially harmful substances that could leach through into the ground or evaporate into the atmosphere. Electrical products account for 40% of the lead found in landfills.
Which is the lesser of the two evils – landfill or incineration?
Incineration saves space but the pollution that incineration produces is harmful. The pollution that incinerators produce especially when harmful materials like Lead and Mercury are burnt which is the case in e-waste. Most of the chemicals are toxic and harmful in nature and also contain heavy metals. Incinerators are more harmful than the exhaust coming from cars because the low concentration of metals emitted by incinerators is very toxic for metals such as Cadmium. The smaller the size of particles the more harmful it is to human health.
As I am attempting to diagram the electronic trash network, I realize that I still don’t have a clear idea of the percentage of electronics that are discarded in regular trash versus recycled. I also don’t know what the consequences are when electronics are in landfills or incinerators. All I know is that it can’t be good for human health or the environment. So, I set about trying to do a little more research on that today. Below are notes and links that help answer the question of how much of electronic waste ends up in landfills or incinerators.
Between 2003 and 2005, as much as 85 percent of the disposed electronics in the U.S. went straight in the trash and headed directly to local landfills or incinerators [source: EPA]. Worldwide, as much as 50 million tons of old electronics are discarded annually [source: Carroll].
“In the U.S., e-waste accounts for approximately 4 percent of the total amount of trash, but it contributes about 40 percent of the lead content in landfills. Of the other heavy metals in landfills, e-waste accounts for about 70 percent of that pollution [source: Downing]. “
The dangers of discarded, old computers stem from what’s inside them. Your typical piece of electronic equipment — especially one like a PC with many circuit boards — may contain up to 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of lead, along with lower levels of mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic chemicals [source: Downing]. These elements are all toxic at varying exposure levels. There is also a fairly poisonous family of flame-retardant chemicals used in most electronics.
Daisy is able to “disassemble nine different kinds of iPhones, 200 per hour, and separate into logical buckets of recyclable materials and components”
Disassembly vs. Shredding: most recycling involves high-volume shredding where devices are shredded and then separated by hand or machine.
This type of shredding is not ideal for today, when there are around 70 different materials (over 3/4 of the period table) in a product today.
“Daisy separates nine different iPhone models into logical parts that can be recycled today, recycled in the future, or disposed of as safely as reasonably possible.”
Process: (1) Daisy senses if there is more than a 10mm bend. If so, it is rejected. Phone needs to have some amount of rigidity. (2) takes off the display with something that looks like a skewer. Display removed and placed in a bin. (3) remove the earpiece with a tap, then the piece drops into a chute. (4) the earpiece has a magnet with rare earth metals, so like the display, cannot be recycled. (5) remove the battery. Battery glued in place so it must be blast with -80c air for a few seconds, freeze it and the adhesive keeps it in place, then knocks it out. Freezes then knocks out. (6) batteries are scanned, bagged and inventoried for reuse or cobalt recycling. (7) iPhone’s aluminum housing with one PCB with components attached with screws, sometimes titanium which needs to be removed. 5 robot arms punch out all the screws. (8) last robot bores out all the PCB, camera, speaker, haptics, logo and remaining PCB assemblies with one stroke. all these components fall into a conveyor. (9) aluminum shell then gets dropped into a bin to be sorted. (10) worker cleans up aluminum shell, removes any remaining adhesives and sorts into 3 distinct metals types (“6K” and 2 types of “7K”).
This is crazy! I can’t believe it! This idea of having a robot that is smart enough to know what model the device is to know hot to disassemble it properly is exactly what I was writing about a week or so ago! This was marvelous for me to see and gives me more faith in Apple. It is amazing that this robot is reverse engineering the whole manufacturing process. This really could solve a big portion of the electronic recycling issue and provides a good alternative to our two other alternatives (products going to landfills or products going to recyclers who may or may not be exporting to other countries).
Questions: What does Apple do to the parts that are disassembled? Are they reused for new products or are they melted down again? I would think they are reused for new devices but that means they must have more labor that manually checks to see if those components still work…right? If it were melted, and not reused, then it seems like the difference between this robot and the shredders at the recyclers is that the quality of material separation is better.
After watching this film which was made over a decade ago, I was curious about whether US is still not a party of the Basel Convention. What I found is disturbing: “The United States is not currently a party to the Basel Convention. Although the United States signed the agreement on March 22, 1990, it has not yet ratified the Convention. Therefore, the Basel Convention does not apply in the United States (64 FR 44722; August 17, 1999).” Does this mean the US can still legally export its toxic electronic parts to other countries? Yes, it does. Until US follows the EU’s model by complying to the Basel Convention to not export to other countries, we are postponing dealing with the issues of very toxic materials in our electronics and wastefulness in our consumption habits.
After some digging into what has happened legally since this documentary came out, I found that Ban was adopted in 1994 to address the export of hazardous waste to developing countries. However, ban opponents said the agreement wasn’t a legally binding part of the Basel Convention. US, along with other major countries, have still not ratified the Convention. But now US will have to ratify before Dec. 5, 2019 because now more than 3/4 majority of countries have ratified the bill. US will need to ratify unless it wants to further isolate itself from the global community.
From this Ban article, it reported that: “Still noticeably absent from the list of countries having ratified the ban are the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, India, Brazil, and Mexico. The US produces the most waste per-capita, but has failed to ratified the Basel Convention and has actively opposed the Ban Amendment. According to BAN, this lack of adherence to international waste trade rules has allowed unscrupulous US “recyclers” to export many hundreds of containers of hazardous electronic waste each week to developing countries for so-called recycling. This primitive recycling involves the burning, melting and chemically stripping electronic waste by desperate, unprotected workers in highly polluting operations. Also, of great concern today is the fact that the vast majority of shipping companies send their old ships, full of lead, hazardous asbestos, PCBs, and flammable gases and oils to be run up on beaches in South Asia where they create pollution, occupational disease and death due to fires and explosions.”
Began my laptop teardown using my parent’s old laptop! Used a microscope to take close up photos – fun stuff! My objective with the teardown is to help me get a sense of all the components that make a laptop. Then, try to find each component’s data sheet, then find out how each of the components are made.
Interview questionnaire: here Interview answers: here
Talking with the representative of Sunnking helped me get a better grasp of the large and complicated network involved with the recycling of electronic products.
Key organizations involved with electronic recycling: a.) Drop-off or refurbishing organization (i.e. Gowanus e-waste warehouse), b.) Haulers (i.e. Sunnking uses their own 3rd party carriers to transport materials), c.) Electronics recyclers (i.e. Sunnking), d.) Brokers, e.) Smelters, f.) Ring mills, g.) End of life facilities, h.) Company that specializes in hazardous waste disposals
After speaking with Sunnking and Tom Igoe I am definitely feeling the need to diagram this network of organizations involved with electronics recycling. Keep in mind, this is all only for recycling. I have yet to figure out what happens when they are dumped in landfills or end up in incinerators.