Accelerating Technology Parallels Exponentially Rising Piles of Junk

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In the midst of a move and digging through the clutter, I’ve excavated a number of ancient pieces of tech from bygone eras. There’s a 2004 Apple PowerBook that’s thicker than the econ textbook it’s sitting on, a cracked first generation iPhone, and an early “flatscreen” TV (that’s far from flat in the back). The faster we move from one generation of technology to the next, the faster the current version becomes obsolete.

Does accelerating tech therefore doom us to flee an eventually uninhabitable WALL-E world? Maybe, but not all old gadgets are destined for the dump.

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Not everyone can afford to be a first adopter, but if you are one, you can sell old equipment to re-commerce sites like Gazelle or NextWorth or trade it in for a discount at Apple. In many areas, you’ll find local programs accepting donated machines and distributing them to low income students or other less privileged groups.

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If old computers or smartphones aren’t usable anymore, folks still don’t have to throw them out—it’s actually better not to. Electronics contain toxic materials like lead and mercury which can leach into the soil and groundwater at the dump.

Recycling broken equipment is often the better option. Many of the big manufacturers and retail stores (eg., Apple, LG, Sony, Best Buy, Staples) offer recycling programs for computers, cell phones, and TVs. And while some components may be used to build new parts, there’s value in the raw materials too.

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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that recyclers recover 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium for every million cell phones processed. (To put that in perspective, market data provider IDC says firms shipped 482 million cell phones in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone—1.7 billion for the whole year.)

Researchers are also learning to extract rare earth elements—key ingredients in many high tech devices—from recycled electronics. Today, China, which has fewer restrictions on rare earth mining than in Western countries produces 95% of the world’s rare earths. To loosen the market stranglehold, countries like the US are reopening previously closed mines to ease supply—but it makes good sense to recycle rare earth materials in discarded electronics too.

All that said, recycling isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. A recent New York Times article says that recycling cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from old TVs was a booming industry until manufacturers stopped using CRTs in flat panel televisions.

In the past, recyclers simply transformed old CRTs into new ones, but now non-existent demand for lead-infused CRT glass requires they remove the lead before they can sell the glass. That’s an expensive process and has led many small recycling plants to abandon warehouses full of the stuff.

One imagines such incremental changes in technology—and perhaps the negative knock-on effects—will inevitably speed up as the pace of technological development accelerates. The NYT says, “the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the last five years.”

While e-waste may continue to grow, the competing trend is dematerialization. Whereas before we might have been throwing out flashlights, cameras, phones, or home recording equipment—it’s an ever lengthening list—now we’re throwing out just one smartphone.

Maybe in the future we’ll have a single foldable, rollable device that serves as computer, smartphone, tablet, and television all in one. Some believe the most toxic component of such devices—the battery—may be made from carbon-based graphene, a material as biodegradable as the stuff in your compost bin.

The vision of a toxic, uninhabitable junk pile of a planet isn’t inevitable. Perhaps the nightmare scenarios that inspire fiery op-eds and touching films don’t typically occur precisely because they do frighten us and that fear inspires a solution—even when most think there is none.

Image Credit: John J. Matlock/FlickrKeoni Cabral/FlickrAlex E. Proimos/Flickr

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • Che Mort March 31, 2013 on 2:33 pm

    More neo-Malthusian nonsense from a web site dedicated to the singularity. Old brained ideologies die hard especially when they become a form of ideological retardation.

    • why06 Che Mort March 31, 2013 on 7:49 pm

      w/e that means… All ik is there IS a lot of junk laying around my house and we probably SHOULD focus on recycling more.

    • 4ndy Che Mort April 1, 2013 on 5:52 am

      Funny how you could only manage some name-calling, because clearly you don’t actually have a valid criticism to make.

      • Che Mort 4ndy April 2, 2013 on 3:04 pm

        The criticism is that constantly advocating the same Paleolithic meme since Malthus, no matter how many times it goes down in defeat the tribal minded troglodyte resurrects it to worship it in all its totem glory. Either we are evolutionaries that have accepted the techno-optimist position as fully evolutionary or we are backwards facing numbskulls fooling ourselves with pretty sci-fi pics like the Zeitgeisters.

        As anyone who has ever had an IQ over 80 and looked at the historical record, one fully recognizes that one generation’s trash is the next gens resource treasure.

        • IvoryTowerScientist Che Mort April 3, 2013 on 6:07 pm

          First off, trying to speak in a poetical fashion about issues doesn’t make you sound intelligent. It makes you sound like your primary goal is to try and impress people by sounding smarter than them which is a surefire way to annoy just about everyone.

          Second, conflating Malthus’s overblown views with a legitimate pollution problem is very intellectually dishonest. Look at the historical record, you say? Sure, let’s do that.

          Was adding lead to gasoline our “resource treasure?” No. It was perhaps the single biggest driver of the crime wave from the sixties into the eighties and did immense damage to all of human civilization. Read up on it.

          Was the widespread use of mercury during the industrial revolution our “resource treasure?” No, its made seafood into a potent neurotoxin if consumed normally by pregnant women.

          Are we overcoming these problems now? To a certain extent, yes, but the cost of fixing and addressing these problems is immense. No one here is arguing Malthus was correct, and this time it will be different, despite how dearly you want to flog that strawman.

          The article is indicating a problem- many of us have excess old electronics and the CURRENT method of recycling(horrifying, dangerous, child-labor driven dumps in third world countries) is generally considered unethical, environmentally unsound, inhumane, and in need of reform so that our relentless pursuit of technology(a clear good) requires the minimal amount of human suffering, both today and in the future from the unknown consequences of our pollution.

  • Vector March 31, 2013 on 5:20 pm

    Perhaps X-Prize can help overcome our recycling and disposal problem?

    Of course, in addition to that, individual humans will need to become generally more aware and willing to alleviate and avoid these problems by not overconsuming, shopping wisely, and wisely “disposing” of those things which they no longer need. Disposing of these items can mean giving them to charity, or it can mean reselling them to used electronics merchants, as the writer has mentioned.

  • Ryan Scott April 14, 2013 on 7:00 pm

    There’s a better way of recycling end of life electronics, a physical method that doesn’t burn it – its turned into usable resin and metals, simply via grinding and mechanical sorting.