Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
An exhibit at the New School asks how designers can help combat the e-waste crisis.
Massive billboard advertisements shill cell phones and other gadgets as sleek and glossy. But there’s a staggering disconnect between the pristine look of a item just out of the box and how the thing looks at the end of its life, with a smashed screen and cockeyed keys, tossed into a heap with other busted-up, obsolete gizmos.
Consumers unload an astounding amount of electronic debris each year. The EPA estimated that Americans discarded more than 2.3 million tons of e-waste in 2009 alone—everything from fax machines to phones and computers. Only about a quarter of this debris was recycled.
Much of electronic waste—to the tune of tens of millions of tons—ends up scattered in landfills across the globe, where trash pickers strip the gadgets and the scrapped parts travel through informal and often-unregulated networks.
The designer Shaun Fynn set out to document the waste, and the people who handle it. The resulting short film and pictures are on view—along with work by students in Parsons School of Design's MFA program in industrial design—in the exhibition e-Waste Tsunami, installed at the New School from March 5-March 27, 2016.
Fynn undertook the project while working near Delhi. He realized that the urban poor “are at the front lines of the problem, even if they’re not the creators of it,” he says. “It’s an ugly affair.”
The cast-off items are testaments to how quickly technology becomes outmoded—a computer monitor or mouse that once looked futuristic now reads as a storied fossil. These e-waste dumps are graveyards for what consumers once considered cutting edge.
Trouble is, Fynn notes, it can be unfortunately easy to discount e-waste’s dire health consequences because they’re not immediately visible. Unlike raw sewage or festering food, for instance, e-waste doesn’t necessarily have a noxious odor that elicits alarm. But it does carry a heavy toll. A 2013 review of 23 epidemiological studies of the population in southeast China, published in The Lancet Global Health, noted a correlation between exposure to e-waste and thyroid dysfunction, as well as an increase in the number of spontaneous abortions. Another study, from 2008, sampled dust from southeast China, largely around informal circuit board recycling facilities within the Guangdong province. In these areas, residents can inhale or ingest dust laden with heavy metals—which in turn poses numerous potential health threats, including damage to the nervous system and organs. Kids—who spend time playing close to the ground—often bear the brunt of this danger.
A 20-year-old Ghanian scrap seller named Israel Mensah described the problem to National Geographic this way back in 2008:
“The gas goes to your nose and you feel something in your head,” Mensah says, knocking his fist against the back of his skull for effect. “Then you get sick in your head and your chest.”
To Fynn, e-waste exemplifies misplaced priorities when it comes planning for a product’s lifecycle. He splits the responsibility between designers, economists, consumers, policy makers, and municipalities. (New York City, for instance, passed a law last year governing disposal of e-waste.) A panel discussion on March 11, held in conjunction with the exhibition, will delve into the question of how designers can work to preempt future e-waste crises by making products better suited for safe disassembly.
“We spend a lot more time understanding production, consumption, and consumers than we do on what happens when the product has finished its active life,” Fynn explains. The solution to the e-waste crisis, he believes, must be a collaborative and global one.