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

There’s no federal law requiring e-waste to be recycled, and procedures nationwide are often fragmented and cumbersome.

Who Will Clean Up Silicon Valley’s E-Wasteland?
[Photo: INESbyI via Pixabay]

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.

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Last April, Apple released its 58-page Environmental Responsibility Report, an ecological “progress report” for the 2016 fiscal year, which 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. Apple’s shred-agreement policies offer a telltale glimpse into 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 the e-waste in 2014 were 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 use lead, mercury, and brominated flame retardants, whose toxicity and lack of biodegradability have long threatened the health of humans, animals, and the environment. Waste also requires the mining of “conflict minerals” (coltan, wolframite, cassiterite, and gold), whose funding of the Congolese civil war, for example, has long been documented and which are found in smartphones and laptops. Furthermore, as these minerals’ finite supply attenuates, miners must look to deep-sea alternatives.

“Coltan is needed for the antennas on [smartphones] to actually 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.”

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 begotten fraud among recyclers who 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, and 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 PhD 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.”

The Role Of Planned Obsolescence

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% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012”; the percentage of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years also grew from 7% in 2004 to 13% in 2013.

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Silicon Valley companies’ smartphones and laptops’ fragility and comparatively brief two- to five-year shelf lives are especially deleterious factors. 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 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 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. “There are design decisions that are more concentrated [in Silicon Valley], so that’s one area of influence on the generation of electronic discards, and how well they can or cannot be recycled or discarded in some other way, or have lives longer than, say, a year, three years, five years. The design decisions getting made there [are] a significant responsibility, and probably the biggest responsibility.”

Little Interest In Cleaning Up Their Act

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 from Apple, Verizon, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and other major tech actors have sought to blockade 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 magnitude of the problem, 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,” 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 posit that governments should bestow companies with tax incentives to recycle their old products or produce longer-lasting software.

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The ecological ramifications of the electronics industry’s profit motives are profound and systemic–symptoms of the prevailing economic order. “[Silicon Valley companies] want consumption because that is what drives profit,” says Bruce Olszewski, a lecturer and director of the Center for the Development of Recycling at San Jose State University. “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.”

Still, Olszewski asserted, the problem is not insurmountable, as long as the economic principles governing electronics production begin to shift. “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 governments’ responsibility to recognize the needs for society and sustainability.”