Getting our environmental legacy right
“We have very little relationship to our garbage here in Australia. We throw it away, and my point as an environmental geographer, is to say: Where is ‘away'? Away is here for someone.” [Darrin Magee]
You know that sharp moment when a light goes on in your mind? When a neuron has just fired and you’ve literally and physically just learnt something new – and a whole new perspective unravels? I watched this play out in real-time the other day, and it was pretty cool stuff!
My business partner and I had been invited into the IT hub of a large business by a lovely man; let’s call him John. John wanted to discuss how they might be able to reuse some of their devices which had been superseded. Several ‘bleeps’ and pass-codes later, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast. We were in a room that could only be described as a labyrinth of devices and tech; wall-towall, floor-to-ceiling. Organised chaos. John explained to us – with the type of confidence that comes only with years of experience in his profession – exactly how the items had been catalogued. He explained how the items lining the walls were in storage ‘ in case’ they were needed in the future. As we walked through the room to get a better look at what was there, I thought to myself: “the only place this tech would possibly be needed was in 2006.”
Our environmental legacy is a hot topic of global debate. We’re currently living in a micro-bubble moment, where climate change skeptics still have a seat at the table. Our environmental legacy, for business anyway, relates to the impact our industrial operations has had on our water, soil, and air. And it relates to the ongoing impact this can have on our health and our ecosystems. The EPA tells us to keep it simple: avoid > reduce > reuse, before we even think about recycling or disposal. So how can we, as general consumers and businesses, play a positive part in reducing our environmental legacy?
It’s human nature to collect and keep things, to put things in drawers or into storage. It gives us a primal sense of comfort – a sense of preparedness for ‘ just in case’. The impact our ‘ tech hoarding’ is having on the environment, however, is immense.
When we realise eventually that something (or a whole labyrinth of something) can no longer be used because it’s just too old, a common pattern has been to send it to landfill. This then leaches toxic chemicals into the soil and waterways. In Australia alone, we send more than 20 million tonnes of e-waste into landfill every year! E-waste is responsible for 70% of the toxic chemicals, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, found in landfill.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, when electronics were made in the U.S., tech manufacturing giants poisoned not just workers but local communities. From one plant after another, thousands of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals leaked into the groundwater, poisoning neighbourhoods across Silicon Valley. The public only found out when children started being born with serious birth defects, and cancer clusters sprang up in one neighbourhood street after another. More than a generation later, these same carcinogens are still travelling through the soil and up into people’s homes and offices.
Now that China makes most of the world’s electronics, the same devastating environmental contamination is happening there as well – and on a much larger scale. 30% of China’s rice is contaminated with cadmium, which is used in batteries for cellphones, cameras and computers. It can cause cancer as well as bone liver, kidney and respiratory illness.
By ‘reusing’, in short, we can prolong the life of devices for up to another seven years. This means we can slow down the purchase cycle, meaning less precious minerals are being mined for their production. The more time we prolong the life of our existing technology, the more time we allow for further innovation and advancements in our tech production, as the industry works towards producing more environmentally friendly products.
Devices can also be erased, donated, and sold for reuse in developing countries, meaning a more affordable and accessible solution is available. In places like Africa, North Korea and rural Japan, these devices are used as educational aids in schools, and for small business banking. They're also used in supporting new mothers, who are unable to make it to a doctor, with medical updates.
The average lifespan of computers in developed countries dropped from six years in 1997, to two years in 2005. In 2016/17, computers now double their capabilities every 12–18 months, and so do the informational technologies that use them, meaning the upgrade time is even shorter. Our old devices can be likened to melting chocolate. They lose value the longer we hold onto them. And, the longer we hold onto them, the more likely we are to reach into a drawer and pull out that old iphone 4 and wonder what on earth to do with it.
There has been a complete ban on e-waste into landfill in South Australia since 2013. The other Australian states are now developing strategies to follow suit. This change will force our hands and will ensure we start to think differently.
While having this conversation over coffee with John, we saw the light go on for him. He was somewhat disheartened at the reality of having to recycle these great walls of older unused tech, knowing they could have had a second life. However, his eagerness to change to a reuse strategy moving forward had an immense amount of conviction. It means that John can contribute to reducing his company's environmental legacy. He can also have a better story to tell his shareholders, employees and clients. Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Hobart & William Smith Colleges perhaps says it best: “We have very little relationship to our garbage here in Australia. We throw it away, and my point as an environmental geographer, is to say: Where is ‘away’? Away is ‘here’ for someone.” ■