Interview with Stephanie K. at Sourcemap: Notes

My interviews notes here.

Speaking with Stephanie was extremely helpful for better understanding how to get data and information to map the supply chain of products. She talked about how Sourcemap finds the suppliers at each tier. Surprisingly, the process of tracing the supply chain is more analog then I expected – it is really about finding out from the supplier who they receive and send to. As suspected, part of the reason the supply chain of electronics are not mapped is because of how truly complex this becomes. There are thousands of components, thousands of materials, thousands of human hands, thousands of locations that have come together to make an electronic product. The supply chain for digital devices is not as easy to trace as a product like coffee.

Other great references she provided:

Nature Exhibit at Cooper Hewitt

I checked out Cooper Hewitt’s “Nature” exhibit in hopes that I will find some kindred technologists/artists/designers. There were a lot of beautiful biotech art that I was in awe of but didn’t know how to relate to my current research on the lifecycle of electronic products. The one piece that I knew I needed to research more was this ‘Babylegs’ piece by Max Liboiron who is the managing editor for the Discard Studies blog.

‘Babylegs’ is a monitoring device to collect the waste in the ocean. I find this to be a very original way of collecting data on information that is difficult to quantify.

I also love this line that was written on the wall of the exhibit: “One of the most remarkable aspects of nature is its lack of waste.”

How are Circuit Boards Recycled? Do They Have to be Shredded?

While this is probably ethical recycling of PCB, I find this shredding process to be such a waste. Each component on the board takes so much effort to mine and manufacture. There is also so much waste and toxins produced from the making of these circuit boards that I shriek at seeing how these PCBs and motherboards are simply shredded. Why can’t there be a robot that can read the circuit diagram, figure out what each component (i.e. transistor, heat sink, etc) is, figure out which components are still working, desolder, and categorize? If there are self-driving cars I think an AI robot to help with the de-manufacturing of a circuit board is not too far-fetched!

Dark Side of E-waste Recycling: Video Notes

The Circuit Documentary

  • BAN: Basel Action Network, non profit group dedicated to tracking the e-waste trade around the world.
  • American recyclers still export a lot of e-waste to developing nation, which isn’t illegal but is considered bad practice
  • BAN pretends to drop off a regular electronic but it has a tracking device in it.
  • Earth Eye – to track where the electronics end up. It ends up in other countries (i.e. Hong Kong) in remote places. Through the satellite imagery you can see a black pond that is most likely the sludge from burning the materials.
  • Hong Kong was a destination for e-waste shipments, where workers take apart the electronics in hazardous and unsafe ways.
    • “Ideally, electronics are broken down professionally, carefully discarded with safety in mind. Instead, unqualified laborers can poison their towns, develop cancer, and damage their nervous systems. Globally, the human and environmental toll of the work is impossible to calculate.”
  • Exporting electronics is not illegal in US, but BAN has sent some unethical electronic recyclers to prison.
  • Proper recycling is more expensive but doable
  • Steps that e-waste recycler ‘Total Reclaim’ claimed to take:
    • Products that could be reused: wipe hard drives and refurbish
    • Products that are at the end-of-use: dismantle the items.
      • for computers: shred the hard drive, take out the lithium-ion batteries, separate the rest of the materials for buyers.
      • steel, aluminum, precious metals go to metal refiners
      • assembly line workers pick through the larger pieces and sort the plastics
  • “The United States is taking in — and throwing out — an astonishing number of devices every year: millions of tons of televisions, phones, computers, appliances. Americans rarely see the aftermath.”
  • Ex of human health effects: cathode-ray tubes contain lead which can poison; cadmium used in batteries and circuit boards linked to skeletal deformities in animals; mercury in lcd monitors which can damage a person’s nervous system
  • Basel Convention in 1989 was set up to regulate the export of hazardous materials. The convention requires countries to consent before being sent the hazardous waste
  • “Environmental activists pushed for an amendment to the convention that would fully ban some of the world’s richest countries from sending their electronics to developing nations. The amendment still isn’t in effect, but some countries have taken major steps of their own accord to better curb the e-waste trade. The United States isn’t one of them.”
    • Europe has done a better job of restricting and regulating the trade
  • “But how should the recycling system work? What does a responsible world look like? When I ask Puckett, he gives a surprising answer. “Let’s put it this way: it’s not supposed to work,” he says. “This equipment was never designed to be recycled, which is why we have such problems.”
  • Total Reclaim company claimed they had being doing things ethically, but turns out they were using a third-party shipping company that sent LCD monitors overseas.
    • Total Reclaim sent more than 8 million pounds of flat screen monitors with mercury to Hong Kong, where, according to an EPA toxicologist report, workers were at risk of being poisoned. A worker even mentioned they had no idea that the cathode ray tubes were poisonous.
    • “The judge explained that if mercury-filled material was being handled the same way in the US, it would trigger a massive national outcry.”
  • Many recyclers export to save costs
  • US is the only developed country that has not ratified an international treaty to stop dumping e-waste in other countries

How Electronics are Recycled by Sims: Video Notes


  • Initial shredding to help sort and separate plastics from metals and internal circuitry
  • A conveyor belt transports shredded materials, a powerful overhead magnet separates iron and steel from the waste stream.
  • Ferrous materials include iron and thus magnetic.
  • The ferrous material is collected and prepared for sale as recycled steel
  • Further mechanical processing separates aluminum, copper and circuit boards from the material stream, which is now mostly plastic
  • The aluminum, copper, and circuit boards are collected in Gaylords, which is a pallet of e-waste, and prepared for sale as recycled materials
  • Using advanced technology ABS plastic is separated from polystyrene plastic
  • Final step is to locate and extract any remaining metal remnants to create as pure a stream as possible

Sand in the Gears: Notes

Dearest Rashida pointed out this wonderful Ingrid Burrington piece . Below are some of my notes on it.

This is such a great point: “This may or may not be reassuring information. It can conjure scarcity anxiety: we could run out of these precious resources, and then how would our (fraught as it may be) way of life continue? But if the early 21st century’s love affair with tar sands oil teaches us anything, it’s that “running out” of a resource is the wrong question; the question humanity needs to worry about is what devastating environmental and political lengths it is willing to go to in order to not “run out” of a resource.”

Another great point: “To see the world as its grains of sand, and to remain attentive to the networks and systems of this era often means facing ugly truths. Building equity or justice into networked technologies is a perpetually Sisyphean project, but necessarily so.”

In her piece, she partially focuses on sand and how everything around us – from the roads to our digital devices – are an aggregate of various sands. This perspectives reminds me very much of the first chapter from “High Tech Trash” in which the author describes how we are basically sourcing minerals from the earth, turning them into devices for our products, and disposing them once we are done with them. In the disposing process, they either end up in landfills, are scavenged for parts in god awful conditions, or are returned into this mineral form. Essentially, we are moving the Earth’s minerals around and leaving a destructive trail behind. Often times in this process of making something from minerals, there is incredible amounts of waste involved both directly and indirectly. Not all parts of the product are returned to ‘sand’ or to a mineral form that can be used. The next step for me is to find out how much of electronics that are recycled is even ‘recyclable.’ The hazardous chemicals and toxins involved in the making of the electronics render many of the components hazardous for recycling.

High Tech Trash: Notes

More notes here

In this book, Elizabeth Grossman reveals the tangible effects of e-waste and the environmental and health impacts of high-tech manufacturing that is out of sight for many people. She writes “each device has a story that begins in mines, refineries, factories, rivers, aquifers and it ends on pallets, in dumpsters, and in landfills around the world.” In her book she goes to the physical sites where the materials of our 21st century technology are sourced from. She digs into specific materials such as gold, copper and mercury. 

Reading ‘High Tech Trash’ helped me get an overview of all the points to consider: a.) manufacturing – mining sites and semiconductor facilities, b.) brominated flame retardants, c.) disposal process – what electronic recyclers, smelters, processing facilities do, d.) legislations – Basel Convention Treaty that US hasn’t ratified yet

As an example, she mentions that all our laptops contain gold. Gold is dispersed throughout the circuit boards as connectors, transistors, semiconductors and other components. The reason gold is heavily used in electronics is because it is a good conductor of electricity and it doesn’t corrode or tarnish. Mining gold usually takes place in a huge open pit mine, many of which are located in South Africa, Australia, US, China, Russia. One of the major environmental consequences of mining gold is cyanide leaching. Cyanide is sprayed on the raw ore in order to isolate gold. There are liners placed under enormous piles of ore but leaks and failures still occur. The leaked cyanide causes severe toxic contamination of the surrounding soils, streams, groundwater and everything in the local food web. This also relates to the issue of dumping mine waste that has made surface and groundwater undrinkable and turned water acidic and lethal to the aquatic wildlife.   

Here are some memorable quotes that I’ve noted down as I’ve been reading: 

  • “A 2001 EPA report estimated that discarded electronics account for approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead now found in U.S. landfills”
  • “As we become increasingly dependent on the rapid electronic transfer of information, while telling ourselves that we are moving beyond the point where economies depend on the obvious wholesale exploitation of natural resources, we are also creating a new world of toxic pollution that may prove far more difficult to clean up than any we have known before.”
  • “We have-until very recently-overlooked the fact that miniaturization is not dematerialization.”
  • “…in 2005 revealed that 95 percent of American consumers did not know the meaning of “e-waste” and 58 percent were not aware of an electronics recycling program in their community.”
  • “A typical desktop computer can contain nearly 30 pounds of metal…”

Maintenance and Care: Notes

Notes on Shannon Mattern’s article Maintenance and Care.

  • rather than fixing the systems we have, we gravitate towards shiny new technology (i.e. autonomous vehicles and blockchain-based services)
  • importance in focusing on the act of maintenance, not creation
  • “what we really need to study is how the world gets put back together…the everyday work of maintenance, care taking, and repair.”
  • “Rethinking Repair”, Steven Jackson
  • “broken world thinking” – take into consider erosion, breakdown and decay rather than novelty, growth and progress
  • “To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.”
  •  The Maintainers blog
  • Fixers “know and see different things…” then designers or users.
  • “I’d say that if we want to better understand and apply maintenance as a corrective framework, we need to acknowledge traditions of women’s work, domestic and reproductive labor, and all acts of preservation and conservation, formal and informal.”
  • “avoid romanticizing maintenance and repair”

Rust: Urban Repair

  • you get a lot of press for a new project…you don’t get a lot press for maintaining
  • yet…the world is constantly being fixed and maintained all around us, every day
  • social infrastructures: caregivers, therapists, social workers. people who are “carers” as instruments of “urban kindness”
  • urban life is a giant system of repair and improvisation. developing regions also become offshore “back lots for wealthier nations”… like breaking up rusty ships and processing e-waste
  • “deferred maintenance” of public infrastructures as slow-motion disasters, which sustain the oppression of marginalized and undeserved populations

Dust: Spaces of Labor and Care

  • maintenance involves a wide spectrum of professional expertise: “preservation, material science, development, policy, insurance law, and building codes,” 
  • “maintenance those women had long been doing at home without compensation”
  •  Mierle Laderman Ukeles pioneered the genre of “Maintenance Art”: performing the mundanity of this exhausting work
  • “As they cooked, cleaned, and nannied for affluent families, they were often less available to care for their own.”
  • Example of disregarding those who maintain in the architectural design: house that Koolhaas designed for Lemoine

Cracks: Fixing Objects

  • “Yet the lifespan of an object also depends on context. While in the West a cracked screen can mean death; elsewhere, it opens up possibilities for reuse.”
  • objects, like architectures, open up the need and possibility of how they are taken care of
  • Iowa Sate launched a program in 1940s where students were required to “take apart and reassemble machinery in order to appreciate details of its construction, operation, and repair.” Also launched a program in 1929 for women so they could study household appliance maintenance – study how to upkeep domestic appliances.
  • smarter technology –> harder to break down and fix
  • “what happens to our broken laptops and Alexas?” –> we can still find old radios and film projectors at store but rarely do you see an iPhone that can be reused
  • “Scholars in various fields have turned their attention to “discard studies,” including flows of electronic waste.”
  • “While Western media has commonly portrayed Ghana as a node in the “shadowy industry” of e-waste disposal, Burrell sees the country and its diasporic communities as networks of entrepreneurial refurbishment and secondhand trade, where workers have opportunities to develop technical skills.”
  • If those machines have lived out their second life –> move to city where scrap collectors, processors, traders decompose the parts
  • This “ecosystem of distribution, repair, and disposal” is, Burrell argues, a “fact of life in everyday places marked by scarcity.”
  • Mend rather than discard their own broken things!
  • “teach[es] us something about material ordering processes, about the ordinary life of … objects, and about the role of the people in charge of them.” Damage to a seemingly fixed object like a subway sign reminds us that the world is fragile and that we all bear some responsibility for attending to it. We participate in systems of distributed maintenance. “
  • iFixit: wiki page of fixing it strategies and instructions!
  • “So we need to be aware of how these stories of maintenance traverse geographies and scales, and take care in mining them for ethnographic insight, morality tales, aesthetic inspiration, and design solutions.”

Corruption: Cleaning Code and Data

  • “Many manufacturers aim to keep their wares out of repair and remix economies, and they carefully control the evolutionary lifecycle of their products. “
  • “smart cities” – code now has a huge role in maintaining architectures and networked cities; most coders are actually fixing stuff
  • System administrators + content moderators: “Just like buildings and cities, most software applications and platforms and portals would break down quickly were it not for the maintenance workers who keep them in good working order.” this work is usually low-paying and psychologically disturbing –> they work to maintain a “clean” internet
  • maintaining the “cleanliness” of the internet is not unlike maintaining our ecosystem, cultural sites, buildings
  • “Data maintenance is particularly consequential in medicine, and thus caring for medical sites, objects, communities, and data has been recognized as an important part of caring for patients.”
  • “Across the many scales and dimensions of this problem, we are never far from three enduring truths: (1) Maintainers require care; (2) caregiving requires maintenance; and (3) the distinctions between these practices are shaped by race, gender, class, and other political, economic, and cultural forces. Who gets to organize the maintenance of infrastructure, and who then executes the work? Who gets cared for at home, and who does that tending and mending? Agreements about what things deserve repair — and what “good repair” entails — are always contingent and contextual. If we wish to better support the critical work performed by the world’s maintainers, we must recognize that maintenance encompasses a world of standards, tools, practices, and wisdom. Sometimes it deploys machine learning; other times, a mop.

Sims Recycling Center Visit

I went on a tour of the Sims Recycling Center in Sunset Park of Brooklyn with Eva. The tour of the facility and the education center is phenomenal. They have a great tour set up for anyone interested. It is amazing to see how our recycled material is acquired, broken down, filtered, categorized all in this one facility. There are many takeaways from this visit, below is my attempt of trying to capture some of them but I think everyone should just go in person.

First, there was a lecture about what Sims Recycling Center even is, what it does and how is different from other facilities. The main point was that this center is focused completely on residential recyclables. Commercial recyclables go to private carters and companies. Other facts:

  • The Sims Recycling Center is the largest Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in United States
  • MRF are focused on sorting. It is the MRF’s responsibility to also sell
  • 50% of recyclables come in via barges, the rest come via truck
  • Sims focuses on sorting then selling to markets the sorted materials
  • Different cities have different markets and types of materials that are sold
  • Different cities also have different conditions for recycling. For example, in New York the recycled material doesn’t have to be entirely clean; there can be some food residue on it still.

Next, we covered the general facts about recycling in the 5 boroughs.

  • Key players in recycling: brand owners –> consumers –> municipalities –> MRF –> MFG
  • Green Bin: Mixed paper, cardboard
  • Blue Bin: Metal, hard plastics, glass and cartons
  • Orange Bin: Food scraps, food-soiled paper
  • Hard vs soft plastic makes a difference in recycling. Soft plastic (i.e. plastic bags) go in regular trash. Hard plastic (i.e. water bottles) go in blue bin.
  • Foam is now banned in New York because foam is not recyclable

Next, we covered the process that the recycled material is sorted at the facility

  • Sims receives 100% of the curbside MGP (Metals, Glass and Plastic)
  • Sorting system is 2.5 miles of a conveyor belt system
  • There are double belts for each step of the process because in case one side is jammed, they always have another
  • The most common reason for jams in the belt are plastic bags or long, loose plastic material that gets wrapped around the disks

  • 1st Process: Barge –> Tipping Floor –> Liberator
  • 2nd Process (Metals): Screen –> Magnets –> Eddy Currents
  • 3rd Process (Plastics): Conveyors –> Optical Sorter –> Manual Sorting
  • 4th Process (Final): Bunkers –> Bales –> Load

  • Liberator: opens bags that then go into sorting system
  • Screens: different sizes go to different screens; they are separated into 3 different size categories
  • In the disc screens, the glass gets broken up in the process and small plastics also fall through
  • Magnets are used to sort ferrous metals from non-ferrous metals
  • Ferrous metals: contains iron and are attracted to magnets
  • Non-ferrous metals: eddy currents; repels the magnetic stuff; eddy current is a current that flows in a conductor as a result of changing magnetic fields
  • Optics are used for sorting the plastic
  • They use an infrared light to identify chemical makeup of the plastic. They also use an air jet to blow the plastics into their specific categories once the type is detected
  • The final check is to manually sort the recyclables. The workers pull things out that don’t belong.
  • Lastly, the materials get formed into bales
  • Different bale types have different costs; for example, aluminum is the most valuable type
  • Bale –> Compression; after baling, the materials are compressed using a hydraulic ram; this creates dense bales and are then tied together
  • Different bale types: a.) PET, b.) color HDPE, c.) polypropylene, d.) aluminum, e.) steel, f.) cartons, g.) natural HDPE, h.) refuse
  • 12% of what is received at Simms is trash, which is unfortunate because they have to spend money to export that trash elsewhere

LES Ecology Center e-waste Warehouse Visit

The LES e-waste warehouse in Gowanus is stunning! They have a large prop area section full of old electronics. It’s crazy to see the GUI of these old macintosh computers. First time seeing Susan Kare’s icon designs in all its original glory.

They also had a $5 section full of old goodies. I found this old Asus motherboard for a desktop computer (I think) that I’m planning to study over winter break. I’m thinking I’ll look into each of the components on this board and find out more information on it, such as how it was made. It’ll be good to find the data sheet for each component as well.