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March 9th, 2016:

How Can Product Designers Help Solve The World’s Massive E-Waste Problem?

Every gadget you casually toss helps destroy the planet—and lives. It’s time we think about the lasting effects of what we’re building and buying.

In February, a new smartphone launched in India that cost the equivalent of $3.60. The quickly dropping price of electronics, along with rising incomes around the world, means that there will soon be many more gadgets in the market. And when a newer, cheaper one comes along in a year, many more of them will end up as electronic waste.

That’s one of the points made in a new exhibition on e-waste at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, which shows the changing landscape of electronic production, consumption, and disposal, and asks how designers can start to help address the problem.

“I think when you live in the U.S. or Europe, you’re not so exposed to this—you don’t see the social and environmental consequences,” says Shaun Fynn, CEO and creative director of StudioFynn, a design firm that collaborated on the exhibition. While living in India for a commercial design research project, Fynn started photographing waste pickers sorting through e-waste in unregulated dumps, and researching the full lifecycle of products such as phones and tablets.

For a waste picker, a cell phone—filled with copper, silver, and a little gold—is a valuable source of income. But shredding and burning a gadget to get out those valuable components can also expose someone to lead poisoning or toxic dust that can lead to respiratory disease.

In the past, most e-waste might have been sent to the developing world from places like the U.S. Today, almost as much is now generated domestically. Over the last seven years, domestic e-waste in India and China grew about eight times larger. By 2014, China generated over 6 million metric tons of e-waste. By 2018, the world will be throwing out 50 million metric tons of gadgets. By 2019, 5 billion people will own a mobile phone, with 1.4 billion connections in China and 1 billion in India.

Designers can help by designing phones and other electronics for easy disassembly and recycling at the end of the product’s life. But they can also try to pressure brands to rethink their responsibility for a gadget when a consumer no longer wants it.

“I’d be interested to see how designers can influence the thinking of their clients to look to how we can have services to take things back,” says Fynn. “I think designers are in a position now with clients and corporations where people listen to them a little bit more. I think they should have a little bit more of a voice to encourage that responsibility.”

Brands usually ignore the end of a product’s life, but that doesn’t really make sense. “Once products reach the end of their lifecycle, the brand promise of the advertising message is no longer true,” he says. “It’s no longer there, yet the product still exists in the environment. People are working with it; it’s affecting people’s lives. It’s affecting their health.”

Though a few state-of-the-art e-waste recycling centers exist, most processing still happens in the informal economy. “E-waste workers are really doing work that no one else wants to do, or no one else has collectively come together to do,” Fynn says. “So really they’re forming a front line. Without them in the environment, nothing would be reprocessed. They’re filling a part of the system that we haven’t yet really evolved our own methods and services to understand.”

It’s something that brands could easily take on. “I think we’re very good at understanding production, understanding consumers, but we’re not very good at understanding the world of the receiver—the people that work with the waste,” he says. “I think that’s what strikes me most from running a design agency. I know how sophisticated production methods are. I know how sophisticated clients are to bring things to market, but once we get to this end of market, it’s a different world.”

It’s an issue that design schools like Parsons are also trying to tackle. “We are interested in the myriad generative ways diverse fields—including industrial design, psychology, and urban policy—can begin to model a more sustainable future,” says Rama Chorpash, director of the industrial design MFA at Parsons, who helped organize the exhibit as part of student work exploring design for disassembly.

The project will bring together experts to talk about the problem of e-waste on March 11.