60 million tonnes

I’m working on a Windows 7 machine that I bought from Dell in 2010. Yes, my computer is more than a decade old. Google keeps reminding me that I need to upgrade or I will “lose” some features or something, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to fear. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, just laid off 12,000 people, so I don’t think they really give a shit about my computing experience. What they give a shit about is harvesting my data, and I suppose I have to upgrade to their latest software versions or they won’t be able to do that nearly as well.

The endless obsolescence/upgrade cycle for the tech industry is nothing new. General Motors figured out back in the 1920s that they needed to make stylistic changes to their cars every year or people wouldn’t buy new ones. They would just hold on to their old cars. But that was bad for business. So the “model year” concept was born. Now we expect to see a new version of every car every year. I have a Honda CR-V that I bought new in 2019. The 2020 model features an entirely new engine, not to mention cosmetic changes like bumper styling.

But at least an “orphan” automobile is still functional. The fact that my Toyota pickup is 35 years old does not prevent it from being highway-ready. But try doing something useful with a 35-year old computer!

It is estimated that global electronic waste is on the order of 60 million metric tons annually. (A metric ton or “tonne” is 1000 kg or about 2200 pounds.) E-waste has been described as “the fastest growing waste stream in the world.”

So, how much is 60 million tonnes?

For questions like this I turn to Wolfram Alpha. Here’s what it spit out:

First of all, 60 million tonnes is 132,300,000,000 pounds! That’s 132.3 BILLION pounds. Yikes. There are seven billion people on the planet. 132.2 divided by seven is about 19. So that’s 19 pounds of e-waste created each year for EACH PERSON ON THE PLANET.

You can see the other comparisons. I like the “mass of terrestrial wild animals.” This of course excludes fish and sea creatures as well as livestock and pets. E-waste is about 6 E 10 kg per year and the animals are estimated to weigh 7 E 10 kg. That’s 86% (6/7 ≈ 0.86) of the mass of our world’s land critters. That seems like a hell of a lot to me.

The “estimated wet biomass of all humans alive” is a bit creepy but I suppose we can imagine all seven billion of us standing on a really big scale. The dial reads 385 Mt (mega-tonnes) or 385 million tonnes. Our e-waste is then (60/385) about 16% or 1/6 of that. We throw away, by weight, the equivalent of more than ONE BILLION PEOPLE every year!

People are biodegradable. And they are a renewable resource.

Neither can be said for e-waste. What are we going to do with the growing piles of desktops, laptops, gaming consoles, toaster ovens, TVs, cell phones, keyboards, monitors, microwaves, DVD players, fax machines, copiers, and such? Throw in big appliances like refrigerators and ranges, plus medical and industrial equipment, and add in schools, the military, prisons, and other large institutions like government agencies and you get a sense of the enormous scale of the problem. Everyone is upgrading and that means a whole bunch of stuff is getting thrown out.

E-waste is polluting. That’s a problem, especially since our poorest citizens typically live closest to waste disposal sites. Environmental poisons do not impact rich and poor alike. But what’s worse is this notion of waste. These devices should be manufactured so that they can be returned to the resource stream. There was too much energy, effort, and knowledge that went into creating these things. That’s getting thrown away along with the gold, copper, and other metals. We refine the silicon for chip-making to an astonishing degree of purity and simply dump it in the garbage after we are finished with it. And that means we have to tear up another beach somewhere to get the raw material, high-silica sand, to make new chips. It’s insanity.

Capitalism—or the free market, if you prefer—is supposed to be the best system for innovation and creativity. And that’s true. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of different kinds of television remotes, for example. But there is no incentive for our smart young engineers and business people to create a fully re-usable or recyclable remote. Imagine if THAT was the ethic behind new product development. Make something that can be part of a “closed-loop” such that there is little or no waste. That the concept of “waste” is what becomes obsolete instead of the things we make.

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