How Quickly We Discard Electronics

 by Shui Hu – SVTC intern 

I am a computer science major, and to be honest, I had no idea what I would write about when I initially turned on my laptop to blog on this site.  Sure, I had heard of electronic waste and some stories about its ill effects on people, especially in Third World countries where they lack proper recycling equipment, but what did I have to contribute to this conversation in which I am much more comfortable as a listener rather than a speaker?  Then it struck me that my ignorance itself was part of the problem.  As future engineers, managers, and entrepreneurs in the high tech industry, computer science students like me will one day, not too long from now, find ourselves designing products that contain the very toxins behind the e-waste problem.  If we are not very aware of the issue, how can we make product decisions that help reduce environment and health damage caused by used electronics?  After some thought, I came to the conclusion that my lack of awareness underscored the dichotomy between the drive to get new electronics on the market on the part of businesses and the need to reduce e-waste.  The former generates lots of waste as used devices get discarded, making it difficult to achieve the latter.  These two incongruous goals need to be reconciled in some way if we are to solve the problem of e-waste.

            Consider for a minute all the electronics in your house.  For many of us, there will be a computer (or two), a phone (or device that supplements the basic functionality of a phone with other cool features),  a T.V., a printer, an alarm clock, … the list just goes on.  Chances are, many of these are slated for retirement within a few years, and many of us will feel that that is perfectly normal.  I’ll bet that quite a few of us have been hooked on the mobile electronics phenomenon, moving up the ladder from cell phones and iPods to iPhones and SmartPhones, and now perhaps onto the iPad.  Not that I am against those i-gadgets—they do provide people with new and creative ways to connect—but in the rush to purchase new technologies, we are discarding still useful technologies at an astonishing rate.  Corporations, consumers, and the nature of the high tech industry all bear some responsibility for this problem.  On the one hand, corporations have to sell products each quarter in order to survive in the competitive high tech industry, and that won’t happen unless customers regularly purchase new items.  Consumers also have the urge to buy the latest products for a variety of reasons.  Finally, rising levels of technology often force people to adopt new electronics in order to use certain features.  We see this a lot with computers where you have to buy a newer model if you want to run a new program that you need for your work.  Especially, in the last few decades when the rate of CPU speed advanced at the pace of Moore’s Law, a new computer purchased eighteen months later would allow you to do things that you could not before on your PC.  Unfortunately, all of this leads to huge quantities of electronic waste building up in a short period of time.  While the costs of clean recycling remain high and exporting e-waste remains a popular option, the huge quantity of electronics that we throw away each year only adds to the growing problem. 

            It would be great if we could somehow reduce this high rate of obsolescence, but at the moment, I don’t see how that could be done.  With the nature of software and hardware, the need to make profits, consumer desire and, in some cases, the need for new technologies, we can only hope to recycle our electronics at the same rate that we discard them.  What I do think may help is perhaps including as part of the curriculum in college computer science and electrical engineering courses, information on the problems of electronic waste, so that students studying those subjects will be aware of the negative environmental and health consequences of rapid obsolescence.  After learning about the e-waste problem, I find myself thinking about how to develop software products that do not require consumers to throw away their old electronics.  If large numbers of students that study computer science and electrical engineering become aware of the problem, I think many of them, after they enter the high-tech industry, will also be more inclined to adopt business models with lower rates of obsolescence.  As the future members of the electronics industry, engineering students like me can then help solve the e-waste problem by reducing the amount of electronics waste.