In the following essay I chose to write about the growing e-waste problem and some ways we can combat it. Consumer buying habits, regulatory methods and innovation.
This is my rough draft and welcome some feedback on how to strengthen my paper.
Self-reflection on the essay below.
I feel that my paper could still use some work in transitioning from one topic to the next. Although there is a lot of information in the essay and should revise my transitional information.
Secondly, I need to review my conclusion, I feel that I can strengthen it a bit more by establishing my credibility as n environmental services worker and utilize some first hand observation as part of my justification for my thoughts on why consumers need to be more cognizant.
And lastly I think I can expound on the value that recycling brings to companies who engage in asset recovery and utilize unique technology to get the most out of the process.
"E-waste solutions for a growing environmental challenge"
It is projected that in 2019, the average household will have spent over $1300 in purchasing consumer electronics. Consumer electronics spending is projected to approach over $26 billion in revenue by the end of the year (GIARDINA). Meanwhile, precious resources are increasingly needed to produce these devices in order to satiate our need for better, faster, and more entertaining devices. Contributing to the problem is the effect that Moore's law predicts in that technology doubles speed and power every two years. The continued development and consumption of new products has contributed to a rise in ecological contamination subsequently leading to an increase in shady disposal practices while also necessitating the growth of a movement of more responsible stewardship of the environment.
Television, movies, and the internet are constantly bombarding people with advertisements for new and better electronic devices. The newest phone, the largest TVs, the most powerful game systems, all are items we are told we cannot live without and we seem to buy into it. However, as we grow ever more eager to replace yesterday's device with tomorrow's newest version, sometimes even multiple times per year, we fail to think about all of the energy, resources and waste this practice creates for the environment.
Many of these devices are finding their way into landfills near populated areas where toxic materials leech into the soil poisoning fauna, animal life and even ground water that humans depend on. In some cases, this waste has found its way to recycling operations that take in these materials in order to recover precious materials using methods that endanger their handlers. In many places, these practices and dangers have led to changes in the way that the Unites States government has started to regulate waste disposal of electronic devices.
The Federal government has started to ban the export of materials to other countries and has partnered up with other nations in order to control the practice of illegal processing of E-wastes due to the dangers it presents. Many of the materials that these operations are trying to pull from these devices are rare and recovery can be very lucrative making it an attractive practice. However, much of the byproduct of these operations can be difficult to dispose of through normal options such as landfills which often prove to be wasteful. Countless resources are lost when discarded electronic devices are buried where there could be better options for recovery.
These precious commodities are an attractive reason for some organizations to have started innovating and creating a thriving recycling industry that specializes in recovery of these rare earth metals. This new opportunity has led to some consumer electronics producers to begin implementing end of life recovery of their discarded products. They have recognized the danger some of these products could pose and in the interest of keeping public trust in their products, are working to help consumers make better decisions about what they will do with their old products. Educating consumers about some of more responsible consumer options as well as informing them of who the more ecologically friendly producers are can help mitigate this growing problem while benefiting those willing to find new ways of redirecting discarded devices from landfills or exportation.
The shelf life of an electronic device is often determined by the production cycle of the producer. However, what some consumers may not be aware of is that producers often build in obsolescence into their products. Wikipedia defines planned obsolescence (or built-in obsolescence) as: "in industrial design and economics is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete (that is, unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time" (Sarhan). . This shady practice has resulted in electronics being throttled or designed to fail in cycles that encourage their replacement much sooner than necessary and many of the most notable companies have been guilty of the practice for some time.
One of the most prominent companies to have engaged in this practice is Apple who recently was sued after admitting to having throttled older phones while trying to explain it as a battery saving practice. This had been a standard practice for some time and when discovered, this fact did affect consumer confidence. Apple wasn't the only culprit responsible for pushing consumers to upgrade their devices. Both Samsung and Apple were also investigated by Italian anti-trust authorities and were found guilty of pushing software updates that reduced the performance of their devices (Brunelli). Although they are rivals in the production of their devices, they do seem united by one point, they have both implemented unfair business practices. These practices are seemingly designed in order to encourage a shorter shelf life and quicker replacement of devices. These old devices often wind up being thrown away and subsequently taken to landfills to be buried.
Many of these electronic wastes that wind up in landfills consist of materials considered hazardous to the environment. In other cases, the materials may wind up being exported to places where unlicensed recyclers use crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. Furthermore, many of these used electronic devices contain hazardous materials like mercury, lead, silver, and flame-retardants. When they are landfilled many of these materials can leech into the soil poisoning the surrounding plant life and in some cases nearby ground water sources. Still, the allure of the small amounts of valuable raw materials found therein has led to an illegal industry in countries where disposal regulations are less stringent.
Until recently, much of the e-waste disposed of in the United States was being sold and exported to countries such as India. Although India introduced some e-waste legislation in 2016, little has changed since then. When the United Nations University recently send researchers to Seelampur, India, which is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India they found a large industry referred to as "kabadiwalas" or "raddiwalas" who collect, dismantle and recycle waste and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organizational system. Hundreds of people including children were found handling various types of e-waste including discarded televisions, air conditioners, computers, phones and batteries (Park).
Many of the people were found handling these materials without any protective equipment, tools, facemask or even footwear. The processes they were using to recover components involved acid burning and incineration creating toxic gases and severe health and environmental long-term consequences (Park). As much of the population is desperate for work, the government is aware of the problem but is limited in its ability to combat this practice. This recycling process often amounts to an even more serious problem of pollution. Although the environmental and ecological effects are appalling this represents a tragic paradox between the recycling methods of developed versus that of developing countries. Where in countries like Australia and other industrialized nations e-waste recycling is still lacking, in India, collection and recycling rates are quite high, due in no small part to informal and illegal operations that tend to extract a high portion of the valuable material from devices. Some nations have become aware of the ecological dangers associated with unregulated recycling and disposal practices and have started to act.
In 2011, the EPA launched the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship. Their goal was to establish a National Strategy that allows Americans to manage the electronics we use today more sustainably, and simultaneously promote the new and innovative technologies of the future (Environmental Protection Agency). The national strategy is primarily focused on advocating four goals. The first of these goals is to build incentives for greener electronics design and innovation. Second is to ensure that the federal government leads by example. This would be through improvement of their own acquisition and procurement practices, switching to Energy star rated equipment and using only certified recyclers holding either E-stewards or R2 certifications. Third, they would like to increase safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the United States. The EPA intends to maximize reuse and clear data and information stored on used equipment. Their fourth goal is to reduce harm from U.S. Exports of E-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries. The EPA has enacted a ban on CRT exports. CRT glass contains up to 40% lead and minimizing this waste stream from leaving the country means it is less likely to wind up in an unregulated recycling operation. Two major certifications have been established in the US to help effectively manage e-waste and appear in the EPAs national strategy.
Recently environmental services companies have begun seeking out ways to advance their best management practices. One government encouraged method is by obtaining a recycling certification that is proof that recyclers are taking compliance laws seriously and are disposing of e-waste responsibly and securely. R2 and E-Stewards are two certifications that have become synonymous with effective recycling. R2 requirements for certification requires that recyclers remain compliant with 13 different categories including having an effective environmental health and safety management system. They are required to have options for reuse and recovery of used or discarded devices. There are required to only import and export specific materials and remain in compliance with export laws. Recyclers would also have to track all through put and be able to show all the materials that come through its facilities. They would also need to be responsible for destroying any data remaining in any media they handle (SERI - Responsible electronics recycling).
E-stewards is the other major certification a recycler can obtain and has many of these same requirements as R2: Responsible Recycling but also includes standards for the protection of ethical labor laws. Any downstream partners they use for disposal or management must guarantee that they remain compliant with laws protecting child labor and that no coerced or prison labor is used. Ultimately, either standard encourages the use of alternatives to landfilling of materials and encourages new technologies in managing e-wastes. Many of these alternatives can be lucrative if the business is sustainable and follows Govt mandated rules.
Recyclers in the US are currently using a few different methods for the management of E-wastes. The least popular method is landfilling but, in some cases, there may be no other alternatives if the components might be toxic or hazardous. For the most successful companies, asset recovery is the primary goal. For companies who want to recover precious metals the biggest expense is often related to transportation costs. Many of the materials are shipped cross country to management facilities and so these management companies must compete with small profit margins. The operations these environmental companies employ must also be effective at dismantling the discarded device components and extracting precious metals for smelting or resale.
Because recyclers must comply with strict employment laws critics of recycling operations believe it is difficult to make it a worthwhile venture. These critics noted that in many cases e-waste is still being exported by many recyclers. Recent investigations into the recycling industry by Vice.com, uncovered practices that some companies are using when dealing with low grade electronics. Because the cost to dismantle and recover materials is so high, it's often cheaper to sell the materials to scrap dealers who will often export them in lieu of established laws (Koebler). Innovation and alternatives to direct disposal are also effective methods of curtailing the amount of e-waste being landfilled.
The need to develop new waste to minimize waste going into landfills and to ease waste management has led to new technologies being created, Recently, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center developed a method for the sustainable recycling of plastics found in electronic products. They created a nontoxic solvent that can recover polycarbonate, a group of thermoplastic polymers from the plastics. Ultimately this would provide a way to recover all plastics in the recycling process while remaining non-toxic. Their focus has been on studying ways to separate polymers and recycle them so they can be used in the production of new products (Great Lakes Electronics Corporation). If they are successful it could mean recyclers would be able to recycle nearly all the plastics in e-waste. Currently, much of the plastic still goes to landfills so this innovation could be a huge benefit and encourage further studies. The most effective method of keeping materials out of landfills is to simply reuse or repurpose discarded and used devices.
Repurposing of discarded devices keeps them from going into any recycling process and gives the products a second life. Reuse of these devices not only extends their lives but, in many cases, provides technology some users might otherwise not have access to. Smart Metals Recycling decided to innovate in other countries and took several unwanted OLED tablets destined for shredding and repurposed them for use in E-commerce terminals in taxi cabs. Another option is to look toward redesigning products to they last longer and user biodegradable materials in their productions. Ultimately, our buying habits might also help determine how some of the electronics manufacturers approach their consumers.
The EPA has provided some suggestion for consideration when looking to buy that next gadget on their website (Environmental Protection Agency). Checking for energy star certification, buying products that have reduced packaging, and perhaps considering devices which have environmentally sound take back and recycling options built into the purchase price are all good options. As consumers considering what we buy ahead of time and making more environmentally sound purchases can send a message to the electronics producers. The power of the consumer is underestimated when looking at options for tackling this growing waste problem. If we continue to buy from companies whose sole purpose is to produce the next fad item and no plan for the future management of the discarded e-waste, then we enable them to maintain the status quo which ultimately is not sustainable.
As consumers we need to be aware of the challenge that our electronic wastes can pose to our environment and to the people who might otherwise wind up recycling hazardous materials by hand. The government has started to encourage responsible recycling and support third party certifications that help to establish standards for managing e-wastes. New technologies and innovations are beginning to tackle some of the more difficult components of the recycling process that could discourage some companies from entering the industry and encourage others to export illegally. Lastly if we don't make smarter buying decisions and consider more than just the gratification of owning the newest iPhone, laptop or phone system then we are guilty of harming the environment and contributing to one possibly toxic future.
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GIARDINA, CAROLYN. "CES: Consumer Tech Industry Could Reach $398 Billion in 2019, CTA Projects." The Hollywood Reporter (2019). Online article.
Koebler, Jason. Motherboard Tech by Vice. 20 Sept 2016. Electronic Document.
Mills, Richard. Ahead of the Herd. 29 October 2018. Online Article.
Nishizawa, Nicole. Harvard University Sustainability. 27 june 2018. Online Article.
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Sarhan, Adam. Planned Obsolescence: Apple Is Not The Only Culprit. 22 December 2017. Online Magazine Article.
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