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Interviews: Electronic waste

Updated Wednesday, 5th July 2006

Jennifer Gabrys reveals the trail of misery left by electronic waste.

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Listen to an interview with Jennifer Gabrys and her research and perspectives on following the trail of environmental and social issues arising out of electronic waste. You can also hear Jennifer talking about some of her work in the exhibition.

Jennifer Gabrys interview:


Copyright The Open University


Jennifer Gabrys: Hi, I’m Jennifer Gabrys, and I am currently researching electronic waste actually as part of my PhD dissertation through McGill University in Montreal.

Well it’s increasingly become a problem that we have electronic devices that have been discarded that have nowhere to go, and as one of the most rapidly growing industries there’s also a rapidly growing waste stream. But the problem is not just about how we throw away our electronics when they’re obsolete, which they become obsolete more and more rapidly, but it’s also about what goes into the computers, the other electronic devices, the mobile phones, AV equipment, everything, even including tea kettles and vacuum cleaners now is electronic in some way, and there are a number of hazardous chemicals that go into the manufacture of those devices as well, so it’s both on the sort of manufacture and as well as the disposal end.

I think, surprisingly, people are still rather uninformed that electronic waste is an issue, and I think a lot of people sort of have electronics around in their closets they don’t quite know what to do with them, but they probably also don’t know that there are a number of hazardous chemicals in the devices and, furthermore, when they ‘recycle them’, and I sort of say that in quotes, often they’re sent to places like China, India and Nigeria where they’re broken down in hazardous conditions. It’s often more lucrative to send the devices there. So there’s quite a trail of problems, environmental issues, social issues that comes out of electronics.

Well it’s not an easy solution. Of course recycling is an option, although it’s not necessarily clear that when you recycle something it’s always going to be done, for instance, in the United Kingdom and not sent elsewhere. More and more companies are now sponsoring take-back programmes where they actually take the computers back that they have manufactured, and they do pledge to consumers that they will recycle those and not send those away to China for instance. But more than that also there’s a sort of postcards that people can send from this exhibit to encourage manufacturers to engage in sustainable design, to think about what they put into electronics, and whether there are ways to use bioplastics, for instance, or substances that are less hazardous for the environment.


Jennifer Gabrys exhibition interview:


Copyright The Open University


Jennifer: Well what you have here are postcards that have the sort of circuits of electronic waste; it’s called ‘Media in the Dump. So the idea is that you start with the process of manufacturing electronics, electronic components, microchips, and maybe most people don’t know but there are actually a tremendous number of chemicals that go in the process of making electronics, and microchips require a very pristine environment free of dust, and to make an environment that clean requires chemicals in the first place, but then the actual chips themselves require a tremendous number of resources. And it’s been cited that up to 99% of the materials used in the manufacture of microchips are actually discarded. So, even though the device itself is quite small, there’s quite a lot of resources that go into it.

In the next sort of stop in this circuit of electronic waste is looking at sort of the short shelf life of our electronic devices. Most mobile phones, as this poster shows here, are tossed after only eighteen months, sometimes even twelve months, so they really don’t last that long, and mobile phones are just one part of the whole spectrum of electronic waste. You can see there’s some refrigerators, washing machines and everything. And it seems as though electronic devices become more disposable as they become smaller, and iPods are a perfect example of that.

The kind of third poster here has to do with disposal, throwing things away on the street because we don’t really know where to put them, and there’s a tremendous number of electronics discarded, in the billions, and you can see that there are legislation currently attempting to restrict the flow of electronics to landfills, that the WEEE Directive, or the waste from electrical and electronic equipment, as well as the restriction of certain hazardous substances, RoHS Directive, which tries to take the toxic materials out of electronics. But at the same time this is legislation that hasn’t been fully enforced and hasn’t really sort of been followed up on so there’s a lot of work to be done there.

All right, the fourth poster shows where all of the stuff goes that you throw away. As much as, if not more than, 80% of our electronics that we send to the trash bin or for recycling go to China, and here’s a view of the kind of shipping containers, and once they actually arrive in these third world countries, the conditions in which they are recycling are often quite toxic. You can see there’s actually some information here from the Basel Action Network, which has done studies on China and Lagos in Nigeria, just sort of expose the conditions of workers, this is a wire village showing kind of what’s involved in breaking down electronics, and there’s all number of kind of toxic materials, acid baths used to extract the gold from circuit boards and so on. So the US is actually the primary exporter of electronic waste because it doesn’t consider that to be illegal. And, even though it is illegal in the United Kingdom, you still find waste in China from the United Kingdom, so.

And just the final poster is the landfill where electronics go when they’re not sort of recycled or repurposed and just breaking down. A number of heavy metals end up in the groundwater, in the soil. As much as 40% of the heavy metals found now in the soil and water in landfills is from electronics. So it’s quite a dilemma. So what this postcard is essentially asking people to send a notice to different governmental agencies and electronics manufacturers - Intel, IBM, Samsung - to ask them to think about the whole spectrum of sustainability in terms of electronics.






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