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?
Tagged: art, e-textiles, e-waste, safety third
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.
Tagged: e-waste, rare earths, speaking
Obrigada to Bicyclemark for snapping this shot of my snarkiest slide.
Updated with concise list of links, 10/12/2011.
I recently got home from 9 days in and around Berlin for the Chaos Communication Camp, organized by the Chaos Computer Club. The Camp happens every 4 years and on a lark I submitted 2 talk proposals. To my happy bewilderment, both were accepted. I gave “There’s Gold In Them Circuit Boards: Why E-Waste Recycling is Smart and How to Make it Smarter” based on my thesis work on e-waste, and “Data Mining Your City: Early Lessons in Open City Data from Philadelphia, USA”. On the train from Berlin to the airfield where the camp took place, I met Florian Stoller who helped me give the city data talk. Besides being on the board of his local Pirate Party in Fribourg, Switzerland, he also helps run Be-Cause , a company that makes e-gov forms. He filled in the European perspective, which really improved the talk. Thanks, Florian!
Here are some links.
The camp and Berlin in general were pretty great and deserve their own review. But until I get my photos posted and thoughts sorted, some crude self-promotion will have to do.
Categories: Travel · Uncategorized
Tagged: CCCamp2011, e-waste, hackers, open city data, talks
Update 5/13: Print-ready! Updated the links below.
Update, Fri 5/6: The beast, she is slain. Needs tweaks and I’m still fixing references, but it’s a paper. A very long paper. My eyes are sore.
(Previously: Part 1) is as done as it’s going to get tonight, and ready for critique. Have at it, folks! Note that technically it’s not a thesis, it’s a capstone. But when I say that, 85% of the time I get a blank stare.
Part one the whole shebang of “Making A Vicious Cycle Virtuous: Rare Earths as an E-Waste Case Study” in pdf. Here’s the accompanying poster.
Pile of Computer Peripherals. © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring
Categories: Environmental Studies
Tagged: e-waste, thesis
Dear friends, colleagues, strangers and spammers,
Around Monday-ish, I’ll have a 2nd draft of my Capstone project for a Master of Environmental Studies ready for reading. I (mostly) have the readers I need to get a grade, but I’d love to have input from more folks. You are qualified if you can read and if you have any interest at all in technology and/or the earth. One friend has already commented that my writing style is kind of journalistic and that it’s almost an enjoyable read. If you have the time and inkling to read about 45 pages of double-spaced content about e-waste, rare earths, and environmental justice and policy, please comment or email me! My final revisions are due May 3, though I might be able to make minor tweaks up until May 10 or so.
Tagged: e-waste, rare earths
Update: I’ve done a bunch more reading on this since I wrote it and I don’t totally agree with everything I said anymore. Specifically, the monopoly was a long time coming and export quotas have been ticking down since 2005. Yes, the market failed, but China’s export quotas may have as much to do with protecting natural resources as sending a message to the market. Will file an update soon.
Today we got some awesome lulz and a few, well, less awesome, being the first day of the fourth month which is dedicated to chicanery and such.
Tonight I was reading up on mining and recycling of rare earth metals like the stuff in super strong magnets, wind turbines, hybrid car batteries, compact fluorescents and LEDs. I found a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about rare earths in the defense supply chain. Strangely, it was published on April Fools Day one year ago.
Tagged: e-waste, rare earths, thesis
In July, 2010 I presented a talk on my thesis topic, electronic waste, at the Hackers On Planet Earth, or HOPE conference in NYC. My main interests around the topic are environmental justice, externalized costs, and transboundary movement of commodities. Sounds a little dry, but it’s plenty juicy. Here’s a link to the presentation.
Electronic Waste: What’s Here and What’s Next.
Categories: E-Waste · Environmental Studies
Tagged: e-waste, HOPE, talks, thesis