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 relatively new. Now, in 2018, 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, plant-waterers etc. are all joining the ranks of e-waste. And the demise of each IoT “thing” will be hastened yet further by cyber vulnerabilities not able to be patched, planned obsolescence, and/or the pursuit of newer, sleeker, or more features. Where will all the e-waste go? How toxic is it all, and will our earth be able to absorb and “digest” this amount of waste?
Currently, we send much of our e-waste to Africa and Asia where it gets dismantled by impoverished workers and children using very primitive tools. Toxins leach into the environment harming workers, ground, water, and air.
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 discarded devices. 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.
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.
Discarded products are only part of the problem. Toxins and e-waste are also generated in the mining, manufacturing, and use of electronics. In an article in The Conversation, author Josh Lepawsky explains,
“No amount of post-consumer recycling can recoup the waste generated before consumers purchase their devices.”
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. 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 still 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 poorly paid workers manufacture and disassemble these products.
Planned obsolescence is another big player in our e-waste travesty. (for more on planned obsolescence see Energy Consumption.) Manufacturers convince us of the “need” to upgrade our devices nearly every year which leads to yet more e-waste. Greenpeace informs us about how tech companies make products that are easily broken and nearly impossible to repair – 5 ways tech companies are making your devices die too soon. The article explains, “…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 and replace a compromised IoT “thing”. (For more on the difficulty of patching IoT products, see Cyber Security.)
The big tech companies, which should be trailblazers in finding ways to minimize e-waste by using recycled materials and making cradle-to-grave products, received nearly failing grades on sustainability. 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 industry promotes would/will likely leave us mired in 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, 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 for all this? …smart diapers, a “sleeping baby with the push of a button”, 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 a 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 mad rush 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
Additional Resources on E-Waste and E-Injustice