A 2014 report from Electronics Take Back Coalition, tells us that in 2010, the EPA reported that we disposed of 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices in the US every day. That was nearly 8 years ago when Smart Phones were a relatively new phenomenon. Now, in 2017, industry is moving rapidly to try to get every “thing” possible connected and online.
What will happen when the Internet of Things produces orders of magnitude more e-waste? With the IoT, household items such as washing machines, mattresses, tea kettles, and plant waterers etc. are all joining the ranks of e-waste – their demise hastened yet further by more attractive “up-to-date” IoT “things,” or the need to be replaced due to cyber insecurities or planned obsolescence fanned by marketing pressure. Whether our earth will be able to absorb and “digest” this amount of toxic waste is remains unclear. Where will all the e-waste go and how toxic is it?
An article by Austin Lumbard, US obsession with electronics has huge human price touches on a number of the social and environmental justice issues of our digital technology. In a discussion about the toxins used in our digital electronics, he writes,
E-waste from printers, monitors, computers and phones contains high levels of toxins, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Because these toxins can seep out of e-waste and contaminate water sources, it is illegal to send them to landfill in the United States.
So instead, currently, we send much of our e-waste to Africa and Asia where is gets dismantled by workers and children in abject poverty, using very primitive tools. Toxins leach into the environment harming the workers, ground, water, and air.
In a Business World article, Nurit Kanti explains:
With lack of proper barriers to prevent this leakage, and the high concentration of these toxic substances, the impact of the e-waste on the ecosystem is extremely long-lasting, irreversible and dangerous to the sustainability of everyone around that eco-system.
A lengthy article published by Bloomberg Business Week – American Chipmakers Had a Toxic Problem Then They Outsourced It – explains how toxins, used in the manufacturing of microchips, caused many birth defects and miscarriages. But that was 30 years ago, and supposedly, the toxins have been phased out. But a follow-up study was conducted in 2013 that indicated many toxins remain. The workers manufacturing these products get the first “hit,” but the exposure is echoed at the end life of these gadgets as well – toxins in, toxins out – as men, women, and children in Asia and Africa disassemble these products.
Planned obsolescence is another big player in our e-waste travesty (see the page on Energy Consumption for a discussion of planned obsolescence). Manufacturers convince us of the “need” to upgrade our devices nearly every year which leads to yet more e-waste. In fact, Green Peace has a great article on how tech companies are making products that are easily broken and nearly impossible to repair – 5 ways tech companies are making your devices die too soon. The author tells us that “the growing trend among major IT brands is to make our phones and other devices more difficult to repair and maintain.”
Patches for the many expected IoT cyber security breaches are also not realistic. A far less cumbersome solution and more profitable for manufacturers, is for us to discard a compromised IoT “thing” and get a new one….and our e-waste grows yet more. (See Cyber Security for a discussion of the difficulty of patching IoT products.)
Our tech companies, which should be trailblazers in minimizing e-waste, by using recycled materials, and making products with cradle to grave in mind, received nearly failing grades on sustainability from Greenpeace. According to Greenpeace, Guide to Greener Electronics 2017,
“Billions of electronics are being made, sold, and disposed of every year—a cycle that drives short-term profits for electronics manufacturers, but at too high a cost for the planet we all share.”
But even if these tech companies were to operate as if there were a tomorrow, the sheer volume of production and consumption they promote, would likely still leave us in the midst of a massive e-waste calamity.
Who in the IoT world is even talking about E-Waste, and how did such a bad idea as the IoT ever catch on? – E-waste,m health impacts, privacy violations, cyber security risks, impacts on wildlife, energy drain, conflict minerals, effects on our brains and humanity, and more. And what do we get in exchange? Smart diapers, robots to raise our children, and the like.
Turns out that e-waste is not just an environmental travesty, but a cyber security problem as well — Our personal data seems to be turning up in e-waste! In an Fortune Tech article, Why One of the World’s Biggest E-Waste Recyclers Is Banking on Cybersecurity, author Robert Hackett tells us,
“Customers are ready to pay up, Shegerian [an e-waste recycler] says, to properly dispose of devices that might contain traces of either customer or employee data or trade secrets.”
Story of Electronics
Though this 7 minute video clip is from 2010, the issues it discusses are significantly more urgent now with the unfortunate push to the Internet of Things.
“This is a story about a world obsessed with stuff. It’s a story about a system in crisis. We’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun.”
For the annotated script