Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Do Product Designers Have a Responsibility to Help Solve E-Waste Problem?

It's no secret that the world's cheap and ubiquitous electronic devices cause environmental harm at the end of their life cycle. According to the EPA, some 3.14 million tons of obsolete, electronic waste were produced by America alone in 2013. And America is hardly the only culprit in regards to this crisis - the entire world consumes technology rapidly. Revenues for the consumer electronic industry have been rising predictably, reaching a record high of $211.3 billion in 2014. As more and more e-waste is produced it is either discarded or 'recycled', which amounts to little more than scavenging for the precious metals inside devices and generally burning or shredding the rest of the components.

Much of the world's e-waste ends up in landfills in third world countries.
This, of course, leads to many more problems. But in the world of ever cheaper, must have devices, what role do the designers and manufacturers of those devices play in keeping their products from polluting and poisoning the planet and it's inhabitants? Should companies such as Apple and Samsung and Microsoft be more committed to creating products that are more easily managed at the end of their life cycle?

An obvious first step in creating more environmentally conscious devices would be, of course, using recycled materials to create new products. Plastics are an easy choice, while glass and precious metals become more costly. 

Interchangeability would go a long way in reducing e-waste. Imagine if you could easily swap out things like memory and processors inside of a cell phone. Instead of being pressured to buy an entirely new device, companies could sell the base components for a fast upgrade. This would require designers to create inventive ways to achieve the sleek appearances of machines that are so common and, truthfully, many devices would have to increase in size in order to accommodate interchangeable parts. It may even result in the loss of a signature look and feel of a device.

Unlikey? Of course. But thinking about what responsibilities manufacturers and designers should have in relation to their products (and not just to the bottom line or their customers) can create a more widespread argument about the health of our planet. The more circular electronic manufacturing becomes the more benefits we will reap as a whole. And if we have to sacrifice a smooth, sleek device for something a little more clunky, could we manage? I think so!

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