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Who Will Clean Up Silicon Valley’s E-wasteland?


Co-published by Fast Company

Last April, Apple released its 58-page Environmental Responsibility Report, an ecological “progress report” for the 2016 fiscal year. The document boasted of a number of sustainability and safety initiatives under the high-profile leadership of Lisa Jackson, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

However, a subsequent report published by Vice’s technology vertical, Motherboard, found that Apple had instructed third-party recyclers to shred its old products, rendering them ineligible for reuse or repurposing, even when stored data could be safeguarded without destruction of the hardware. Such “must-shred” policies expose one of the many practices undergirding a burgeoning environmental issue: electronic waste.

The years 2014 and 2015 produced approximately 41 million tons of e-waste each (less than one-sixth of 2014’s e-waste was estimated to have been recycled); projections for 2017 approach 50 million tons. Unlike ordinary household trash, e-waste contains heavy metals and hazardous chemicals; smartphones’ component parts often consist of lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants, whose toxicity and lack of biodegradability have long threatened the health of humans, animals and the environment. In addition, smartphones and laptops contain “conflict minerals” (coltan, wolframite, cassiterite and gold), whose funding of the Congolese civil war and environmental costs have long been documented. Furthermore, as these minerals’ finite supply attenuates, miners must look to deep-sea alternatives.

“Coltan is needed for the antennas on [smartphones] to get those WiFi signals…and there really aren’t that many sources of it around the world,” says deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler. “We don’t have a very good pipeline to reuse these minerals after they’ve lived out their life in a piece of electronics resources…. As we’re exhausting ore bodies on the surface, much like with oil exploration, we’re going deeper and deeper into the ocean to try to find these resources.”

A number of circumstances contribute to the production of e-waste. There’s no federal law requiring e-waste to be recycled, and procedures nationwide are often fragmented and cumbersome; only 25 states have implemented legislation. In addition, e-waste recycling is largely privatized, placing its control in the hands of profit-driven businesses. In 2013, the New York Times reported that insufficient governmental oversight of the recycling programs of companies like Sony, Toshiba and Apple had “led to rampant fraud” — recyclers were buying paperwork to inflate the quantity of waste collected. Third-party facilities’ recycling streams may also prove noxious; contracts with manufacturers and adherence to environmental protocol vary, affecting how much waste can actually be responsibly recycled. Moreover, businesses that depend on the market value of recyclable materials may opt to abandon their stockpiles or dump them in landfills when materials become obsolete.

“One growing problem is cathode ray tubes [which are commonly found in television and computer monitors from previous decades],” says Freyja Knapp, a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science Policy & Management at the University of California, Berkeley. “The leaded glass is a real problem. The barium in them is a problem. [The] markets have declined for” many of the facilities that process CRTs, “and you see a lot of abandoned facilities with big piles of leaded glass just laying there.”

What’s arguably most responsible for this, however, is the manufacturing model of planned obsolescence, in which software and hardware become incompatible or antiquated, or hardware isn’t designed for durability. Smartphones may begin to malfunction after two years, for example, or fail to support recent operating systems or app versions if they’re two or three versions removed from the latest models. (iOS 10, the operating system Apple introduced in late 2016, proffers a number of tactile features that require an iPhone 6S or later model.) This also manifests in larger appliances. In 2015, ENDS Europe found that electronic goods’ lifespans were dwindling, noting that “the proportion of all units sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012”; the percentage of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years also grew from seven percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013.

The fragility and comparatively brief two-to-five-year shelf lives of Silicon Valley companies’ smartphones and laptops are especially deleterious factors, Thaler notes. What’s more, devices from Apple, Google and Microsoft have reached levels of cultural ubiquity rivaled by few other forms of electronics, thus feeding their incredibly high demand.

“A lot of companies make devices that go obsolete in a couple of years and then they essentially become useless to the user and you have to buy the updated version,” Thaler explains. “If smartphones lasted for 10 years, there wouldn’t be the huge need for e-waste recycling and for finding ways to deal with the massive amount of essentially garbage produced by needing to buy a new cell phone every two years.”

Culpability, then, begins with manufacturing and design. “I don’t see how [companies’ profit motives and e-waste] could not be related because of planned obsolescence…that’s forcing the market to continue consuming,” Knapp says. “The design decisions getting made [in Silicon Valley are] a significant responsibility, and probably the biggest responsibility.”

Some of the largest e-waste producers have shown little interest in making any changes. A proposed New York state law, S618B (the “Fair Repair Act”) aims to remove barriers to electronics repair by requiring companies to sell replacement parts and tools (and in some cases, provide guides) to users and proscribing software locks, which can deter third-party vendors from replacing electronics parts. Recent lobbying efforts by Apple, Verizon, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and other major tech actors have sought to block the bill. (Similar legislation has arisen in a number of other states, including Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee, where tech giants are suspected, Motherboard notes, of lobbying against the proposed laws. Apple, Verizon and CTA have not replied to requests for comment for this article.)

Given the problem’s magnitude, a number of technocratic solutions have been floated. Thaler postulates that, to combat product obsolescence, companies can begin to reduce “code bloat”; in other words, their software engineers should preemptively write minimal software whose “slimness” renders it compatible with various gradations of hardware. “Because there’s no incentive to slim down the software to make it run well on older equipment, that old equipment becomes obsolete through software,” he says. “If you change the processor on a board on a smartphone, you can’t design software around it if the fundamental architecture of the phone changes. You need new software and a new phone. But for a lot of cases, that fundamental architecture doesn’t change nearly as fast as the software just bloats.”

Others posit that companies can practice Design for Environment (DFE), a paradigm of ecologically-minded hardware design. The concept, however, is nebulous; like “corporate responsibility,” Knapp says, it means virtually nothing concrete, and dependence on companies to make any decisions that ultimately prioritize the environment or public health over their respective bottom lines may seem misguided. Technocrats also propose that governments bestow companies with tax incentives to recycle their old products or produce longer-lasting software, though Apple’s fraught history of tax-evasion tactics demonstrates the potential pitfalls of such a plan.

To reach a truly effective solution, the systemic roots of the electronics industry’s actions must be addressed, according to Bruce Olszewski, a lecturer and director of the Center for the Development of Recycling at San Jose State University. “[Silicon Valley companies] want consumption because that is what drives profit,” says Olszewski. “The incentive in capitalism is always maximizing profit. The problem with that is there’s no response mechanism in capitalism for things like social good and reducing pollution.”

The problem is not insurmountable, Olszewski asserts, as long as the economic principles governing electronics production begin to shift away from profit and toward sustainability. “We want whoever caused the problem to pay for the problem. That’s going to come from some bold leadership…It really is about creating a new economy. It’s government’s responsibility to recognize the needs for society and sustainability.”

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Julianne Tveten
Julianne Tveten
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