Recycling Is Based on Trust
When we as consumers decide that a product has reached the end of its life, we're usually faced with two choices: landfill or recycle. For most of us the choice is easy, we recycle whatever we can.
However, when we recycle, we are putting out trust in our councils, employers and ultimately recycling companies that our waste is being safely, ethically and responsibly broken down and reintroduced to the supply chain.
The ABC reported last Friday, that some of our e-waste is ending up in horrific toxic dumps in West Africa where it is dismantled by children as young as five years old.
The offending product highlighted in the article is a computer monitor that was once owned by St. George, a local bank owned by Westpac. Westpac, as the article shows claims to have a gold standard in Environmental Stewardship.
The takeaway from the article is trust. We trust in companies and councils to do the right thing. We trust them to monitor their own supply chains and, of course, any third-party recyclers that they deal with.
I'm going to assume that most readers don't really know what an enormous problem e-waste is. Electronics fuel our modern lifestyle, every home and business filled with TVs, white goods, phones, tablets, ebook readers, computers, printers, scanners, game consoles, speaker systems and a growing number of smart, automation devices.
Consider for a minute that Apple has sold more than a billion iPhones in the product's ten-year history. That's only product; for every one iPhone there's at least ten Android handsets, many of which retail for less than $100USD.
Smartphones have revolutionised our relationship with technology. But this relationship comes at a cost. Smartphones, indeed most computers, are filled with rare-Earth elements that are rapidly depleting. Our hunger for gadgets is raping the earth and is creating mountains of waste as we throw-away last years' model. Usually this stuff ends up in landfill, or toxic wastes dumps in the developing world.
Recycle or Reuse?
As the title of this article suggests, I believe recycling should be our last resort when we finally decide to end a product's life. This is particularly true for communities wishing to transition to a post-globalisation, post-fossil fuel economy.
We cannot and should not rely on industrial scale mining and global transport networks fuelled by coal, gas and oil. Instead, we should look at ways to reuse what we already have.
Take computers for example. Many computers are trashed long before it's necessary. Leave aside repairability for a moment (I'll get to that shortly), many users upgrade to a new computer when they feel their old model is slowing down.
This slow down is real. Typically this can occur when the computer's operating system is upgraded or when an old installation accumulates digital detritus (malware, services) that bogs downs available resources.
Both of these issues however can be resolved by simply servicing the computer or re-installing the operating system. Alternatively, you can install a different operating system, such as Linux, which performs much better on older hardware.
Older, but otherwise working computers can also live out their days in a different role. For example, an old computer can be turned into a file server, media centre for your TV, email or web server or a vintage gaming machine.
Old tablets and iPads can be wall mounted to your kitchen and turned in a recipe viewer, kitchen TV or music player or a family calendar.
Repairing and Upgrading
It's true that many modern computers and other electronic devices and becoming more difficult to repair and upgrade. This is particularly true of laptops, especially those manufactured by Apple. But's it's not impossible and there are websites like iFixIt that turn the knowledge and right to repair into a manifesto!
Many computers are built from module parts, especially desktop machines and older laptops: memory, CPUs, motherboard, hard drives, solid-state drives, video cards, power supplies etc can be replaced and upgraded either to repair a broken machine or upgrade a slow one.
eBay and many other online retailers abound with computer parts for upgrade and repair at the fraction of the cost of a new machine.
Upcycling: DIY and Maker Culture
When a product is broken; that's it right? You can't use it anymore and it's time for it to be thrown away.
Well, that's only part of the story. When an electronic device fails, it's usually a component and not the whole device that has failed. As noted above, it's possible to repair a device simply by replacing the defective part. However, there's also the possibility for the creative tinkerer to strip down a product and reuse it's parts to create something new. This is called upcylcing and is a core part of the Maker Culture.
The internet abounds with enthusiastic hackers and makers, sharing their ideas and skills as they turn otherwise broken waste into new, useful things. For inspiration, check out http://www.instructables.com, https://www.upcyclethat.com or check out the videos by YouTube personality, Ben Heck.
I have recently delved into this culture and am creating a digital notification board for my kitchen with nothing more than a salvaged laptop LCD, a Raspberry Pi and scraps of timber.
Knowledge Is Power
A post-transition economy is one that's often defined as being labour intensive but knowledge rich. Labour should be provided by human muscle and knowledge by human ingenuity and the willingness to learn and share ideas.
Leave aside the obvious financial and environmental benefits, and there's also an enormous personal and community satisfaction to being able to service, repair, reuse and upcycle your own products.
Are You Interested?
If this is something you're interested in, or already have experience with, we'd love to hear from you!
Maroondah could really do with a thriving hacker/maker space or subgroup where we can share ideas, knowledge, tools and collect up old electronic devices for servicing, repairing or upcycling.