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]

Living Now - - Environment - By Mardi Brown

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.” ■

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