The origins and afterlife of our electronics are rarely questioned. iPhones and Macbooks seem like organic features of any Apple store, sprouting from the pine tables in the Covent Garden location. Coffee machines, toasters, and portable speakers are all extensions of our domestic space; easily picked up from an Argos and easily replaced. What we seem to completely forget about is the part those electronic devices play in global warming and the e-waste they represent.
The general consumer hardly ever sees the internal circuit boards composed of heavy metals such as mercury, lead or cadmium which, if not properly disposed of, contaminate ecosystems and nervous systems of those exposed to the products. As one of the largest global consumers of electronics per individual, the UK plays an integral role in e-waste disposal. The country’s facilities, however, often miss the mark.
Once our phones die, most of us don’t think ‘Where should I sell my phone?’ but instead wonder if it’s okay to just throw it in the bin. According to the Financial Times in What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste, the amount of e-waste produced per person in the UK in 2016 was around 24.9 kg. To put this into perspective, only 6.1 kg was produced per person on a global scale. In the UK, most e-waste is unlikely to be recycled. Following an investigation in 2019 by the NGO Basel Action Network (BAN), it was discovered that the UK is the worst offender in Europe for illegal e-waste exports to developing countries who are even less equipped to deal with this abundant and harmful waste.
While 1.2 tonnes of electrical devices were sold in the UK in 2018, only 500,000 tonnes of those devices made it to recycling centres. This statistic could be slightly skewed, as some of that remaining amount could be ascribed to people keeping their devices for longer than a year. Yet, it reflects the unbalance between consumption and recycling rates.
Many countries in the EU operate through a system where electronic retailers must take back older products from past customers. However, the rise of online shops has made this harder to enforce. Even if disposed, electronic items do make it to the e-waste processing centre, such as the Veolia one in Southwark, many facilities aren’t equipped to fully process the product into its core metals. After taking apart the old hairdryers, keyboards or iPods, these parts have to be shipped to other processing plants in order to recycle them completely.
Although there have been measures to reduce the steps involved in e-waste processing, such as New York implementing Recycle Track Systems (RTS), this issue could be solved partially by having less e-waste to deal with in the first place. Electronics companies could reduce the current amount of e-waste by providing more detailed instructions as well as continuing to manufacture parts for their products after they’re distributed in case customers decide to repair their products locally.
I became aware of the realities of electronic recycling after attending a lecture given by visual artist Jen Liu on her endeavours to better understand these issues, particularly in China. Liu’s practice focuses on the often hidden production and consumption lines attached to everyday technologies. By exploring labour rights, Liu uncovers the biological and emotional impacts of work dealing with the physicality of these technologies. By displaying archival photos of Japan in the 1960s, Liu confronted the audience with the brutal realities of chemical poisoning as a result of producing or recycling technology.
The particular disease of ‘itai itai’, which served as a prominent reference for Liu’s artwork, causes the bones to become soft. The poisoned body then curls in on itself, as its bones crush under its own weight. Liu commented that the body exposed to chemicals like cadmium and lithium replicates through this painful curling motion the disjointed circular economy of recycling which it’s a part of.
The toll on the worker’s body reflected by ‘itai itai’ is similar to the current illegal shipments from Europe to other nations such as Nigeria, Tanzania and Pakistan. Jim Puckett, director of BAN, observed that these shipments “perpetuated an EU waste management regime ‘on the backs of the poor and vulnerable’.”
Exhibited at the Singapore Biennale last year, Liu’s multimedia work Pink Slime Caesar Shift: Gold Edition incorporates concentric golden circles to further evoke this unfortunate reality. Shiny 3D orbs bounce along the space of a computer-generated laboratory as an instrumental cover of ‘Bang Bang’ by Ariana Grande, Jessie J, and Nicki Minaj loops in the digital space. Similarly shaped to the curled, poisoned bodies of 20th century Japanese e-waste workers, the chemical properties of the recycled metals are transformed through these animated gold particles.
When asked by a student in the lecture’s audience if any significant political or social change had occurred as a result of her work, Liu responded: “honestly, no.” Her answer prompted a discussion of the importance of art to elicit awareness not present previously. Liu’s honesty serves as an encouraging reminder in times when participating in the art world at any capacity feels cyclical; perhaps especially so in our current global situation. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, most countries have put their recycling systems on hold.
The US and UK, along with many other nations in the west, have deemed only scrap recycling an important link to the supply chain and therefore remain open as usual. The pandemic has allowed our planet to catch its breath due to the immense reduction in human pollution during these first few quarantined months of 2020. However, as everyone is now more plugged into their technologies out of oscillating necessity and boredom, perhaps this is the opportune moment to reflect on the physical realities of our digital devices.
London is expensive and informative. I’m woefully woke and sickeningly skint. Nowhere, perhaps with the exception of LA or Shanghai, would it be harder to hide from the deafening impact of my own thunderous carbon footprint while being relentlessly pressured to buy more stuff.
The free magazines outside tube stations scream zero waste guilt. You must buy tinted lip moisturiser in recyclable aluminium tubes, not those devilish plastic pots. Buy one in each colour! The next column is a real-life horror story: the toxic plastic microfibers from your clothes are polluting rivers and oceans via your washing machine and suffocating aquatic organisms. Only purchase clothes made with natural fibres from now on!
Instagram Search is similarly determined to whisk me down the zero-waste rabbit hole. Earnest models match grave expressions with bikinis and boardshorts, grasping bulging bags of single-use plastics they have collected along tropical beaches. Videos of the whirling Pacific Garbage patch induce a dizzying sense of vertigo at the sheer expanse of eternal trash human beings have made.
Beyond the thin, slippery pages and endless scrolling digital grid, I can’t escape carbon and plastic pollution around the city. Every fresh lungful of polluted air is heavy, gritty. The pavements are littered with plastic packaging. I feel gluttonous and ashamed of my complicity in all this and re-forge a broken promise with myself to attempt a zero waste lifestyle. Homemade lunches, refillable wine bottles, home-grown herbs, maybe composting? A spell of daydreaming later and I am convinced my tiny apartment and 4×3 foot balcony can accommodate a level of self-sufficiency akin to 1970s BBC sitcom “the Good Life”.
Until this wholesome new urban life of self-sufficiency materialises, I need an army of durable, non-plastic containers, string bags and reusable wrappers. At least, the hordes of zero waste bloggers I’ve been following tell me these are essential: an investment. Buying more stuff feels counter-intuitive, but I venture West, to zones abundant with zero waste homeware stores. Inside one, I lift a price tag on a set of glass lunchboxes and shudder involuntarily. I scrutinise their fragility as I recall the ocean of reusable coffee cups I’ve bought and somehow lost over the past year, before fleeing empty handed.
Food-wise, a complex groceries map is the only way to survive the weekend staples shopping marathon. Cycling my janky old bike down Hackney Road is a high speed, Olympic-level sport. The pavement and tarmac have become an obstacle course and I dodge the debris of discarded plastic bottles while balancing a heavy backpack stuffed with bulk buy spaghetti. The weekly cross-city grocery shopping route is now a five-hour roundtrip; a slow, gruelling marathon.
Each evening after work, the labour intensive craft of combining suspicious looking fridge scraps with bulk buy, zero waste ingredients sucks away the hours. Eating out is impossible. Life and leisure evaporate in a zero-waste haze.
Downtrodden, I remember one budget-conscious blogger recommended Amazon as a treasure-trove of sustainable toiletries and other essentials. Unable to shake the image of a tiny seahorse navigating the high seas, its tail wrapped around a plastic cotton bud, I sneak Amazon open on my browser. 100 biodegradable bamboo cotton buds for only £2.95. Undeterred by the universal Doctors’ advice not to poke cotton buds deep inside your ear canal, nor by my mum’s recent cotton bud related earache saga, I click ‘Buy Now’. The next day, the package plops through my letterbox. Since seeing that National Geographic seahorse, I have spent 10 long months deprived of the unbridled relief found from wiggling a sterile foreign object inside my ear.
Amazon first entangled me in a Prime subscription by offering one month free. After months of nudging emails and adverts for Prime membership, I finally succumbed to the allure of binge watching the TV adaptation of Philip K.Dick’s “the Man in the High Castle.” Free TV! Foolishly, predictably, I forgot to cancel the subscription before the end of the month months and they hit me with a full annual subscription fee. £79. As a disorganised graduate student with towers of textbooks to buy, the staggeringly low prices and convenience of next day delivery helped me post-rationalise that Amazon Prime was a bargain.
In this latest dalliance with Amazon, the algorithm was tightening its grip while I was weak with the exhaustion of zero waste living. The intimacies of my search history means Amazon guesses what I am up to and what my idealistic hopes and dreams are. Then, the product recommendations begin. The gadgets, the bulk buys, the “customers who buy this bought this”. Buy buy buy. So cheap!
I start reading posts from Polly, a zero waste budget blogger who helps assuage my guilt for supporting such a notoriously unethical company with soothing advice that boycotting Amazon is a privilege. She recommends some tactics for overcoming their wasteful packaging including emailing Amazon customer services to add a note on your account to avoid plastic packaging and using Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging service, which avoids the box around a box fiasco. Then, there is Amazon warehouse which sells second hand items. Decidedly happier, I scroll for more tips, until she hits me with the bombshell advice to avoid next day delivery, as it is terrible for the environment. Clumping purchases into one order helps minimise the carbon emissions associated with your order. Damnit. It dawns on me that everything about Amazon Prime is enabling and encouraging me to go hog wild buying zero waste products when really I should be buying as little as possible.
Although products are affordable, I am buying things I don’t really need and spending more than I budgeted for. Perhaps one reason local suppliers aren’t stocking these products at affordable price points is because Amazon undercuts everything. It’s a false economy. Local shops just can’t compete with London commercial rents to pay. The Amazon algorithm has data about my innermost concerns and manipulates me with clever marketing tactics. Perhaps, rather than sitting behind a computer screen or trekking to West London to shop zero waste, I should chat with local shop owners and encourage them to stock zero waste products. Then support them by buying from them. Huh.