How technological advance challenges the e-waste challenge

17-08-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

There is no doubt that e-waste is harmful to the environment, and reducing the amount of produced e-waste provides many benefits. But how can e-waste be reduced if the world relies on capitalism to advance technology?

The challenges presented by e-waste

Before we look into the challenges faced by e-waste, it should be made very clear that the author of this article is not a communist nor disagrees with the concept of capitalism. Of all economic and political systems made by man, capitalism has pulled more people out of poverty, helped to encourage democratic governments, and enables the development of so many new technologies.

E-waste is a threat to the global environment, and as technology progresses, it is only getting worse. When old unused electronics get sent to the landfill for disposal, leakage of a wide range of different compounds and elements can occur, including lead, beryllium, and mercury, all of which can pollute groundwater. Furthermore, if these harmful compounds can reach underwater sources, they can be carried into surrounding farmlands and pastures. These compounds can be absorbed by crops or ingested by livestock, and from there, can move up the food chain into humans.

This problem is not dissimilar to the trouble with microplastics, pieces of tiny plastic that find their way into the food chain through fish. The large scale dumping of plastic waste into the oceans is seeing marine life consume said plastic which then moves up the food chain and gets consumed by humans.

The vicious cycle of technology and capitalism

It is clear that e-waste is harmful to the environment, but trying to prevent more e-waste is far from easy. The biggest challenge faced by reducing e-waste is that technological improvement and capitalism go hand-in-hand.

Note from the author – Some would argue that technological advancement is achievable in a socialist society. While this is true, technological advancement in such societies is often driven by fear of warfare with other countries or the need to control the population. For evidence, see China’s development of AI and satellite technology, the USSR’s use of cheap nuclear reactors, and North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons.

The fundamental rule in a capitalist society is to make a profit, and in the tech world, profit is made when a piece of tech is cutting edge (i.e. better than the previous tech). As such, companies pour billions into developing next-generation displays, smartphones, processors, and memory. Once developed, products are built using this tech, and the companies who developed the tech earn profit.

However, this is where the vicious cycle of e-waste comes in; once everyone has the new tech, there is a demand for even better tech. This demand signals to companies that they can make more profit if they develop new tech, and all these companies recognise that if they develop the tech first, they will make the most profit (ideally). When new tech is developed and sold, any products using older tech suddenly becomes defunct. Thus, these devices are thrown away, generating e-waste, and the very force that drives technological advancement also simultaneously creates large amounts of waste.

Can older tech be repurposed?

E-waste is a very generic term and should be carefully used as it can also refer to anything from fridges to smartphones. With regards to white goods, some can easily be repurposed and repaired to save them from the landfill. Those same white goods can often be easily recycled with kettles providing steel and fridges providing plastics.

Smartphones and PCs are a different story, and recycling these devices can provide challenges. For one, gold extraction from old electronics can be expensive, and trying to recycle materials like copper can be unprofitable. Components can be recycled, but hobbyists do this almost exclusively (modules from computers and smartphones like GPUs and CPUs can be recycled at a profit).

As such, it can make sense for advanced electronic devices to be repurposed instead of recycled. Such devices can be repurposed into wireless cameras, trackpads, alarm clocks, and to-do lists. However, while these devices may be fully functional, they do carry risks, especially regarding security. As technology improves, so do standards for communication and security, but older devices may not be able to update themselves to use the latest standards. Therefore, anyone reusing old devices may be exposing themselves to serious security weaknesses.

Another solution to the e-waste challenge is to create electronic devices that are modular in design. For example, a smartphone could be constructed into modular units such as a CPU, memory, GPU, and camera. As technological improvements are made, old modules can be swapped out for newer modules which can help keep old hardware in service for longer. Movements such as the right to repair help to encourage this, but creating highly modular designs has its challenges, including signal timing and signal delay.

Ironically, it may be that capitalism and its push for technological advancement end up being the solution to e-waste. Advanced technologies of the future, fueled by capitalism, could find answers to the growing e-waste problem.