We’re in the throes of an electronic waste disaster and it’s largely down to our magpie eyes for the shiny and the new.
Electronic hardware – anything with a plug, basically, from industrial-scale white goods, to TVs to laptops to mobiles and lamps – that might be outdated but is perfectly useable, or could be fixed at low cost, all too easily goes to waste instead.
That profligacy is one of the biggest contributors to pollution, in turn increasing the demand for components like rare earth elements, the mining and manufacture of which come with their very own set of environmental woes.
According to the United Nations University ‘A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot’ report of 2019, 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is dumped, annually, either into the ground or piling up on top of it.
That’s greater in weight than all of the commercial airliners ever made, or enough Eiffel Towers to fill Manhattan. And less than 20% is formally recycled. Informally, millions of people worldwide (an estimated 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment.
Worse still, those e-waste figures are estimated to double – to 110 million tonnes by 2050 (that’s a low estimate, too, drawn from the official figures shared by just 41 nations) making it the fastest-growing waste stream in the world.
It’s sobering reading, for sure, but, according to three US and UK-based sustainability experts, recently gathered for a video conference with our sister publication Education Technology, there’s much the higher education sector – never one to shy away from buying and replacing hardware by the tonnage in the past – can do to help stem the flood of tech-trash.
There isn’t a university in the world nowadays without posters hammering home the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ but Kevin O’Reilly, the Right to Repair campaign director at US non-profit advocacy the Public Information Research Group, would prefer us all to, “reduce, reduce, reduce!” before tackling the rest of the list.
Simply reducing the amount of times we upgrade tech is a huge opportunity to significantly rehabilitate the environment.
“In that hierarchy, reduce is the first and highest priority of what we need to do.” Kevin declares, “Then, when that doesn’t work, we can reuse.
And recycling should be, really, the last resort because recycling isn’t always effective – especially with e-waste – because recyclers at the end of the supply chain are not able to harvest anything out of this old technology, sometimes due to manufacturer restrictions.”
Kevin says that if we were to all extend the lifespan of our laptops by just one year, from the average four-and-a-half years to five-and-a-half years, that would have the carbon-cutting equivalent of taking 870,000 cars off the road.
Using the same reasoning, if we can hang on to our three-year-old smartphones for an extra year, the results would be equivalent to taking a million cars off the road.
“Nowadays our equipment at home is quite efficient,” says Chris Priest, professor of sustainability and computer systems at the University of Bristol, “it’s really the manufacturing and the mining – a result of the demand for new product – where the emissions come from. Another side of it, of course, is the services that we use.”
Often the energy that’s used in the networks and the servers is significantly more than is actually used on the devices, for instance when we’re streaming information, or if we’re using high-powered algorithms for a search. Chris thinks institutions looking for ways to reduce energy usage should be choosy about their service providers: “Are you using a cloud-based service, are they using renewable energy?”
Edtech and software developers should also be under the scrutiny of establishments wishing to hold true to their sustainability commitments.
“Right now,” says Vasiliki Kioupi, assistant teaching fellow and researcher from the department of life sciences at Imperial College London, “they’re not doing enough to highlight that, actually, their products and services or their operations are achieving sustainability targets, or even social responsibility targets.”
Says Chris Priest: “If you are a software house, then you have far more power and influence about energy use than often many individual customers have.
“Take YouTube or Netflix for instance. A single software engineer can make savings, equivalent to many cars or airports, if they write code that is efficient. If it is unusable and you need to click through about 30 different things, then that’s going to use a lot more energy than if you can do what you need to do in only one click.”
Make do and mend
University prospectuses have often boasted about their latest tech tools and facilities as a lure to attract new business, staff and students. But times are changing, fast. A recent poll of 1,000 British students, by Unite Students and Opinium, found that 60% identified climate change and environmental issues as one of the top three most urgent priorities for world leaders to tackle today.
And many universities now recognise that their intakes partly base their decisions to go to a university based on its sustainability practice and goals and how it is embedded into the curriculums.
“On one hand,” says Vasiliki Kioupi, “it’s important to actually develop the knowledge of how the world works, or the problems we’re facing.
“But it’s not only that; embedding sustainability principles into teaching is actually using different pedagogies and different assessment methods, and this can lead not only to those prepared citizens, but actually to independent thinkers, creative problem-solvers, who can actually use innovation to manage to tackle all the serious problems we’re facing right now.”
The panel suggest that higher ed establishments might woo stakeholders by bigging-up novel ways of reducing e-trash; perhaps by establishing their own workshops (of the light industrial variety as opposed to dungaree-wearing sessions familiar to campuses of the past) in which to fix and repurpose tech that might otherwise end up in landfill.
“As a society,” says Kevin, “we have an attraction to the new, the shiny, the latest. I think that educational institutions are competing on this level to attract the best staff. But you don’t need to have an entire fleet of new technology to get the job done. Sometimes technology that is five or 10 years old can meet the same requirements a new device can.”
Pass it on
Environmental benefits aside, there are economic, educational and community building dividends to fixing and refurbishing tech on campus and it’s something that universities, the panellists felt, should be encouraging more of.
“Holding on to and repurposing what you have, or even buying refurbished equipment from another source can,” says Kevin, “lead to big savings – 30% to 50% – across the board and it’s doing the same job, so that’s great, but there’s deeper reasons for doing it.”
When it comes to physically fixing tech, Chris Priest recognises it’s not for everybody, but, observing students at Bristol Uni’s Hackspace events as they successful mend broken hardware, he says it can be a really motivating friendship- and community-forming enterprise.
“Hackspace has become a kind of social sharing event, it has a real social sustainability impact for the kind of people that are drawn to that sort of thing, learning from each other, sharing tricks.”
Communities of fixers are popping up globally on and off campuses. “Hackspaces, repair cafés, fix-clinics,” enthuses Kevin, “where people bring in their broken stuff and meet up with people, engineering students, software developers, people that just want to lend their skills to communities and fix their hardware so it’s good for the future.
“It’s a way for people to form bonds, to get an intergenerational interaction – it’s a very positive thing. When you fix something you feel good about it.”
Vasiliki agrees: “These kind of hubs are educational for young people in a number of ways. They actually teach students the value of repairing things and not consuming new things all the time. They’re great initiatives to move on from that throwaway culture we live in.”
In theory, we could literally start to fix our way out of the e-trash mess we’re in, were it not for manufacturers and software developers’ reluctance to share information.
It’s something that seriously bugs Kevin, whose Right To Repair brief is lobbying the US government to force developers and manufacturers to share their knowledge.
“Across industries – whether it’s education technology, smart tractors, or household appliances – manufacturers restrict access to the parts, tools and information that we need to fix their stuff when it breaks and not have to wait for a manufacturer-authorised technician to come out, which leads to delays of weeks to months.”
A shift in time
In the meantime, Chris and Kevin both suggest that institutions try to reuse or repurpose equipment in order to drive a cultural shift away from the linear economy of mining rare minerals, manufacturing and then dumping, towards a more circular model.
“One of the biggest things that organisations can do is try to have some kind of pipeline where equipment is effectively not just ditched as soon as it’s slightly out-of-date but is reconditioned.”
Although there are some data protection issues and requirements – namely destroying sensitive hard drives – there are already moves at Bristol to repurpose whatever tech they can for the students and the wider community, “like schoolchildren who don’t have technology at home”, says Chris – action that was especially useful during the school shutdowns.
“I think that’s a really good thing to do, and it’s also putting pressure on organisations to report effectively on what they’re doing to get them to reach net zero commitments.”
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