The Sad, Damaging Legacy of E-Waste (and how YOU can prevent it!)

10/25/2013 2:15 PM |


Do you remember that day when your first iPod broke down? You were confidently walking around Brooklyn, when you realized that the middle button wasn’t as young and sturdy as it used to be. Perhaps it’s time for a repair, you think, seeing as this is the only button on your wonderful machine.


Full of naive optimism, you head to the Apple store, in your hand the soon-to-be-revived mp3 player in its original box, and that receipt you managed to get from your aunt Judith, who always seems to know what you want for Christmas. You walk in, say hi to everyone, congratulate them on the versatility and user-friendliness of their product. You shake hands with the store manager and do a victory lap, high-fiving customers, salesmen and minimalist display cases alike. You even buy a t-shirt with Steve Jobs’ face on it. Then, you head to the customer service counter, and shyly explain that the button is being capricious, and sorry for troubling you with such a minor problem but I’m sure you’ll fix it in no time.

Suddenly, time slows down. For no discernible reason, you become extremely nervous, and begin to sweat profusely through your clothes. You notice that the clerk is looking at you with the half-apologetic, half-condescending eyes of someone who is about to explain Newtonian physics to a dying horse. And then, out of thin air, the words that you were never expecting to hear hit you right in the nuts. The guillotine drops on your head, and you know that you will never smile or hope for anything ever again.

“Bro,” he says. “I can fix it, but it’s cheaper to buy a new one.”

Those were the days, they say, an era now long gone, when we could still be surprised by the simple fact that not all electronics—even ones from Apple!—could last forever. You don’t just repair technology, you replace it. Today, everyone has, in their bedroom or basement, a neat little pile of almost perfectly functioning phones and music players and old computers, waiting in vain for a small fix that may never come, mulling over the absurdity of their seemingly unjust death sentence.

This general trend of throwing stuff away has become a necessity of the industry. Electronics are rarely ever designed to last, or for their assembled parts to be replaceable. This is due in fact to the very nature of the electronics market, which heavily relies on the ephemeral quality of a product it must sell over and over again. A constant flood of new products and technological advances demands that there be a consistent customer base that will continue to purchase new things as they come out. In other words, the demand must match the supply, and not the other way around.

Since the appeal of novelty might not be enough, product designers have to make sure that demand doesn’t stop, or that it (God forbid) decreases. This has led to most electronic products, such as phones, tablets and computers, to be designed to last a couple of years—three, if you’re lucky—before they break down. In sustainable development jargon, this is known as “cradle to the grave” engineering.

The price paid for the creation and sustenance of such a dynamic and lavish industry is high. Probably the most dreadful consequence has been the constant flow of electronic waste, quietly piling up in landfills over the globe.

Some fun facts about “e-waste.” Every year, over 300 million computers and 1 billion cell phones are produced. Electronic waste has become the fastest expanding type of waste on the planet, and is expected to grow at around 8% annually. Meanwhile, it is estimated that only 15% to 20% of e-waste is actually recycled. Electronic waste often contains toxic materials such as lead and something called “brominated flame retardants” that you probably don’t want to mess with. Proper and environmentally sound ways of disposing of or recycling e-waste are complicated and risky, which is why we like to pull off the good ol’ landfill or incinerator trick when we can.

For a while, it seemed like Americans had found a loophole, and began to quietly dump our e-waste on developing nations. This was a devilish scheme: Often under a pretense of charity, we “gave” hundreds of thousands of end-of-life computers to poor communities who couldn’t afford their own. Seems like a good idea right? But as the term “end-of-life” implies, our “charitable donations” often break down in less than a year, and local populations usually have even less of a clue as to what to do with the resulting waste.

It must be said that developing nations have generally taken a more creative approach to their e-waste problem, and countries such as China and India have witnessed the creation of large electronics recycling markets. However, recycling in those regions often take place under very hazardous conditions, without much concern for human or environmental health. Anyway, since 1995, amendments to the Basel Convention have made it increasingly difficult for developed nations to export toxic waste to the rest of the world.

So we can’t dump them on Africa anymore, but that doesn’t mean that we know what to do with our old computers and battery-dead iPhones. Most people just hold on to their e-waste, partially due to not knowing how to dispose of it, and perhaps also because we cling on to a foolish hope that all this could be of use again one day (special shout out to Any Zombie Apocalypse Movie Ever, which probably made this happen.)

So what can you do about the pile of dead smartphones in your bottom drawer? How can you avoid the shame of walking by your dusty Playstation 2 every morning?

Well, it just so happens that something called Upcycle Fest is happening in Prospect Park this weekend. On October 27th and 28th (yes that’s Sunday and Monday) you can bring your used electronics to several locations in Prospect Park, giving them the chance for a new life, and the hope to one day fulfill their childhood Broadway dream.

Everything you need to know is on the Upcycle Fest website, but basically your donations will go to the City Parks Foundation, and are 100% tax deductible.

Sunday, October 27th 9am-2pm
3rd Street Entrance off Prospect Park West — walk-ins
 Willink Entrance —Drive-in drop-offs
Grand Army Plaza safety zone — walk-ins
Monday, October 28th 8am-2pm 
3rd Street Entrance off Prospect Park West — walk-ins
Willink Entrance — Drive-in drop-offs
Grand Army Plaza safety zone — walk-ins
Bartel Pritchard Lot — walk-ins on Monday only