Close the Circuit

If we are to transition to an economy that’s truly green, we cannot afford to ignore the ever-vexing question of what to do with not just our e-waste, but all our crap.

Last summer, as California was going through yet another heatwave, our refrigerator called it quits. Some tinkering around revealed the compressor was the culprit. Fixable for sure. But every electrician we called told us it wasn’t worth it — between the labor charges and the cost of a new compressor, it would be nearly as expensive as buying a new fridge. Loath to add a repairable machine to the world’s ever-growing trash pile, my husband and I spent more than two months trying to find an electrician who would agree to fix the darn thing. We made do with storing our perishable foods in two iceboxes in the basement during that time. Eventually, we caved in and bought a new refrigerator.

photo of a gift card in plastic garbage
A Wal-Mart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues. Guiyu, China. Photo by baselactionnetwork / Flickr.

I was reminded of our frustrating and fruitless effort while reading through Kang-Chun Cheng’s report on Kenya’s e-waste recycling industry (“Scrappy Endeavor”). As the report notes, only 17.4 percent of the 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste produced by humans in 2019 was collected and recycled. The rest was either burned or ended up in garbage piles and landfills where it sits, off-gassing and leaching toxic chemicals into the ground.

Across the world, the ways in which we produce, consume, and dispose of electronics and electrical appliances isn’t just unsustainable in terms of resource use, it also causes considerable harm to the environment and human health — and raises troubling environmental justice questions. The US, for instance, ships off some 40 percent of its e-waste to countries in the Global South.

As the new Biden-Harris administration embarks on its “whole-of-government approach” to combat climate change (halleluiah!), it would be good to keep in mind that much of the effort to decarbonize our economy — from zero-emission vehicles, energy-efficient homes, to wind and solar arrays — will be technology driven. The materials to build that technology — the metals and minerals — will have to come from somewhere (i.e., Earth) and the detritus of that tech too, will need to be deposited somewhere (also Earth).

If we are to transition to an economy that’s truly green, we cannot afford to ignore the ever-vexing question of what to do with not just our e-waste, but all our crap. Cutting back on consumption will always be the first step here, but the repair and recycle industries also have a big role to play, provided they can be scaled up quickly.

All materials in nature are used, reused, and recycled in constant loops. That’s what keeps ecosystems going. It’s time we closed the circuit on human-created materials as well.

I’M THRILLED TO INTRODUCE you to our new columnist — Carolyn Finney. Finney is a storyteller, author, and a cultural geographer who seeks to develop greater cultural competency within environmental organizations and increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak on environmental issues and thereby determine policy and action. Read the first installment of her column, “The Long Game: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize”.

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