Thursday, July 03, 2008

E-Haste Makes E-Waste

Last night some young people came by the house taking signatures and contributions for the Texas Campaign for the Environment. We see folks like this several times a year, and this time their issue was e-waste. My wife gave them a small sum and wrote and mailed four letters to legislators about the issue. And I'm blogging about it, so that's my bit for the cause.

What is e-waste? Basically, anything electronic that you throw away—cell phones, computers, TVs, electric toothbrushes, and so on. And as I heard someone say a few years ago, "there isn't any 'away' anymore." We are increasingly aware that trash has to go somewhere, and electronic waste causes peculiar problems in landfills. Most of it is held together with solder, and until a few years ago all solder had lead in it. Cadmium plating was popular for steel chassis, certain plastics have toxic plasticizers that leach out into the soil, and so for a variety of reasons, e-waste is one of the less attractive types of garbage to put on top of your water table. And it's highly non-biodegradable—there's a good chance that the twentieth century will be known to future archaeologists as the Cathode-Ray Tube Era, since the big glass bottles we watched TV on for many years will probably outlast almost all other artifacts from our time, like pottery shards in ancient Sumerian archaeological digs.

Anyway, over two million tons of e-waste went to municipal dumps in the U. S. as long ago as 2005, when the annual rate of increase was running between five and seven percent, so who knows what it is now. And next February, when millions of analog TVs in the U. S. become instantly useless for anything but viewing old VHS videotapes, the flood of e-trash is sure to increase.

Years ago the European Union decided to shift some of the burden of disposing of e-waste from the consumer and the government onto the manufacturers who make the stuff. They have what is called "extended product responsibility" (EPR), which means that you can't simply make and sell electronics and wash your hands of all responsibility once the things are sold. Manufacturers (or their agents) are under an obligation with EPR to take back used and obsolete electronics and dispose of it in an environmentally responsible way. This costs the manufacturers more than otherwise, but it also gives them an incentive to change their products so they are easier to dispose of. "Easier" can mean anything from no-lead solder (which is now required in Europe) to reducing the size and weight of products overall. What it apparently doesn't mean is making products that will last longer, and not just in terms of not breaking down.

In all the discussions of e-waste I've seen, the unmentioned elephant in the room is the fact that the whole consumer-electronics economy is based on faster and faster product life cycles. A personal comparison may be apt here. During my brief foray into industry around 1980, I worked for a company that made mobile radios for ambulances, fire trucks, and so on. We were developing a new product line of radios to replace the previous line, which came out about 1972. So, taking this recollection as a guide, the lifetime for that product, in terms of how long it would remain basically the same piece of equipment for sale with only minor changes, was eight years. Of course, police departments and private consumers are two different breeds of cat, but the point is that sales were generated from new customers, not by making the same customers throw away something they just bought six months ago in order to buy a newer model.

But the newer-better-faster speedup cycle—the "e-haste" of my headline—is the reigning paradigm in consumer electronics today. Product and even component life cycles are now measured in months, not years. Such rapidity used to be physically impossible, but with modern computer-aided design and manufacturing tools, an entirely new product can be designed, developed, tested, and in full production in three to six months. Having acquired this wonderful tool, manufacturers use it to the limit, which is why you can't find parts for anything electronic older than a couple of years. That's an exaggeration, of course, but perilously close to the truth.

I applaud the efforts of those who are trying to get take-back laws passed in the U. S., although they have an uphill battle to fight. The fact is that the vast majority of consumer electronics bought in this country is made in Asia, and we lack the protectionist motives that partly inspired the European Union's move toward take-back laws. Still, we are a big market, and if we decided to move to EPR, U. S.-based retailers such as Wal-Mart would have to deal with it somehow. I can't picture shiploads of obsolete PCs making their way back to China for disposal, but if that happened, I would be very careful to check up on what happened to them once they got back to their country of origin. There are already third-world countries whose leaders have turned to accepting U. S. waste streams for fun and profit, to the harm of the average citizenry, and we don't want to make that kind of problem worse by passing laws that just move the junk offshore. And there is another way yet, and that is to deal with the elephant face-to-face.

There is a discipline in many religious traditions called simplicity. It means basically not buying, doing, or having things that are not necessary. And of course you can spend a lifetime figuring out what "necessary" means. Unless you live like a hermit, you will eventually have to buy some number of electronic gizmos just to get along in today's world. And simplicity has never made for big new markets—the last thing electronics manufacturers want to do is to sell you something you can use for ten years without spending any more money on it. But if enough people ask for things that you don't have to throw away right after you've learned how to use it because the software is obsolete or everybody else has the new model that yours isn't compatible with, maybe the manufacturers will start making things that way.

Sources: An organization called the Electronics Take-Back Coalition ( has collected statistics from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources, some of which I used for this column.

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