A Sanguine Neurastheniac

Entries from December 2011

Saving E-Textiles from an E-waste Fate

December 11, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Ji Sun Lee's moonlit flower project

Dec 14: Also posted at The Hacktory.

E-waste sucks. In the US we trash about 400 million electronic devices every year. A study published this summer says that soft circuits and e-textiles are on track to become an even more intractable waste problem, unless early adopters turn it into a green technology.

An article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology from August discusses how the very thing that makes e-textiles interesting–the unobtrusive integration of electronics and fabric–could make them an e-waste nightmare.

What makes traditional e-waste so difficult is that it contains valuable stuff like precious metals and rare earths, but in small quantities that are hard to recycle and laced with toxins.

Enter e-textiles. Who isn’t charmed by the idea of a biking sweatshirt with built-in turn signals or accessories that could let your doctor know if your heart rate goes wacky? Not only that, but soft circuits have driven the use of electronics and microcontrollers by women and beginners through the roof.

The problem is that soft circuits contain valuable substances in even smaller concentrations than traditional electronics. Even in Europe where e-waste laws are the strongest, it’s a battle to recycle old gadgets. E-textiles as they are currently designed make it harder to classify them as either clothing or electronics, and make it harder to reclaim valuable materials like silver in conductive thread.

But the authors urge technology and fashion developers to think ahead before the problem hits the mass market. Can we use design thinking to make e-textiles out of non-toxic or biodegradable materials? Can we simplify the separation of electronic ingredients from fabric? Most importantly, how can we prevent pollution while products are still on the drawing board?

At the moment, the people who are experimenting with soft circuits and e-textiles generally aren’t thinking about the waste implications, but they should be. How can creative thinkers, designers, makers and hackers help this emerging technology become a green investment opportunity? What tools do designers need to help them design for a product’s entire lifecycle, all the way through recycling to its rebirth as a new object?

Categories: E-Waste
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11 To-Do’s for Women In Tech

December 7, 2011 · 3 Comments

Cross-posted at The Hacktory.

I’m at the venerable LISA (Large Installation System Administration) Conference in Boston this week. I just left a panel on Women in Tech. This rap session/problem-solving brainstorm was a great way to wrap up an exhilarating and encouraging year for women in IT. I was reminded of two of my favorite works on why the gender gap persists, not to mention lots of other diversity gaps: a 2006 study by the Free/Libre/Open Source Software Policy Support project and Skud’s amazing 13 minute breakdown of everything you need to know from OSCon 2009.

The discussion ranged from (more…)

Categories: Gender and tech
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E-waste talk at Penn today

December 2, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Today I’ll be presenting about e-waste on the Penn campus for my former department.  Penn folks are invited, but I don’t think it’s open to the public just because of space considerations. As usual, I’ll be talking about how e-waste came to be such a problem and why recycling is not simply the environmentally just thing to do, but also a smart hedge against volatile commodities markets.  I’ll be making the argument that any country that wants to be a serious player in tech manufacturing ought to work on making new electronics out of old electronics.

I’ve done a little bit of reading to catch myself up on the changes in the rare earth market and e-waste landscape since I finished my capstone project.  I found that the rare earth shortage I wrote about has lead manufacturers to find ways to use less of them in the past six months, and now prices have dropped quite a bit.  They are still something like 8-12 times higher than they were a few years ago, but this new volatility has investors and mining companies on the move yet again.  This kind of instability doesn’t seem like a tenable foundation for a major industry.  We’ll see what happens next.

Here’s an announcement about the talk from the Vitale Digital Media Lab at the Penn Library.

Categories: E-Waste
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