Category Archives: e-waste

digital wasteland

In a technology-driven culture where planned obsolescence and perpetual upgrades are the rule, electronic waste – the computer hardware and consumer electronics we continuously discard – is becoming a problem of epidemic proportions. 20 to 50 million tons of it are generated annually, most of which gets shipped off to places like India, China and Kenya, where complex scavenger economies have sprung up around vast electronics dumping grounds filled with leaking toxins and treacherous chemicals. Foreign Policy just published a powerful photo essay documenting this very real footprint left by our so-called virtual lives.
Of course it’s not just what we throw away that’s problematic, but what we consume. Many today are awakening to the fact that most of the industrial conveniences we enjoy – abundant food shipped from anywhere, cheap transportation, and various other luxuries – carry a dire hidden cost to the planet’s fragile climate and ecology. Like it or not, instant and ubiquitous communication through digital networks also requires fuel. It was recently estimated that the average Second Life avatar consumes as much energy annually (all those servers huffing and puffing) as the average Brazilian.
There are other stories that reveal the uncleanness of our technology. Read this section (paragraphs 45 and 46) of Gamer Theory about the tragic case of coltan mining in Congo. Coltan is a rare mineral used to make conductors in the Sony Playstation, and its scarcity and high demand have made it the source of violent conflict in that country.
These are problems that are difficult to wrap one’s mind around, so totally do they challenge our fundamental patterns of existence. One can begin, I suppose, by acting locally. On a crisp, sunny day in New York this past January, walking across a large stretch of asphalt on the north end of Union Square usually populated by organic farmers’ stalls or packs of skateboarders idly rehearsing their moves, I found myself standing before a sea of old computers, cellphones and other discarded electronics spread out across the ground. As I stared agape, energetic volunteers, bundled up against the cold, darted around the piles, sorting, wrapping and carting the junk into a large truck. It was a computer recycling drive organized by the Lower East Side Ecology Center in partnership with the NYCWasteLe$$ program. A heartening sight that I couldn’t resist recording with my cameraphone.
Here’s a little photo essay from our neck of the woods: