World Wide Waste with Gerry McGovern

Josh Lepawsky 'Pernicious myth of digital-as-ethereal'

John Carter
August 17, 2022
65
 MIN
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Josh Lepawsky 'Pernicious myth of digital-as-ethereal'

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Episode Transcript

This transcript was generated by AI and may contain minor errors.

00:00:01

S1: Dr. Josh Lebowski is fascinated by connections between geography, technological systems and their discards. He researches waste from the manufacturing of electronics to its end of life. He explores where e-waste accumulates and who it affects. He has a keen interest in how maintenance and repair might offer lessons for figuring out how to live well together in permanently polluted and always breaking worlds. I started our chat by asking Josh about the pernicious myth of digital as ethereal.

00:00:43

S2: There's this long standing tendency to think about.

00:00:47

S3: And talk about and market.

00:00:50

S2: The digital.

00:00:51

S3: Broadly conceived here.

00:00:53

S2: To, you know, occur or happen in a in a place less place, you know, a we use.

00:01:02

S3: At least in English, you know, words like virtual often go with these kinds of technologies and how we.

00:01:10

S2: Talk about them, how we think about them. And that isn't an accident. It has been part of the.

00:01:19

S3: Conversation.

00:01:20

S2: Around the.

00:01:22

S3: Industries that, you know, design, make, build electronic devices.

00:01:30

S2: Really since their.

00:01:32

S3: Inception and.

00:01:36

S2: Quite literally designed into.

00:01:37

S3: The landscapes of the place that, you know, often now gets called Silicon Valley, deliberately designed and not as a as a kind of a whoopsie or a secondary consideration, but a primary consideration by the designers of of those manufacturing landscapes.

00:02:01

S2: To create something that would quite literally look like a clean industry.

00:02:07

S3: And be different than what industry had meant sort of up to that point. And a lot of that design was about deliberately placing industrial infrastructure out of sight.

00:02:25

S2: You know.

00:02:25

S3: Literally putting it underground, things like chemical storage tanks needed to, you know, store the necessary chemicals for the manufacturing processes.

00:02:39

S2: And so it was it was a deliberate urban design process. And I think it has, you know, sort of.

00:02:48

S3: Been with us since at least the, you know, the sort of 1950s and the urban design that emerged around folks at Stanford, Stanford universities in a rolling out of the industrial infrastructure that became what today we know as Silicon Valley.

00:03:12

S2: But so why does it all matter? Well, I think.

00:03:15

S3: You know, one of the ways it matters is that.

00:03:18

S2: It it is very useful.

00:03:22

S3: For, you know, the marketing and and the industrial interests out of which digital technologies emerge that they can trade on these images of being.

00:03:37

S2: You know, light green. I think of all of the metaphors.

00:03:42

S3: That go with so much of the technology, the digital technologies we use, like the.

00:03:46

S2: Cloud.

00:03:47

S3: For example, I mean, it's hard to think of something more ethereal and fleeting as a cloud. And yet, you know, as as I'm sure you've spoken about on another episode of the podcast data centers and whatnot that we.

00:04:05

S2: Need.

00:04:05

S3: For using digital technologies require huge amounts of energy. Of course, just to run. Of course they have to be built in the first place. They require huge amounts of water for cooling, energy for cooling and so on and so forth.

00:04:20

S2: So this this myth of.

00:04:25

S3: The digital as a theory, I think is is very useful in that it can be a way to divert attention from.

00:04:35

S2: In many ways, the very.

00:04:37

S3: You know, sort of classic problems that come along with industrial production that is, you know, the use of energy and materials and of course, the the wastes and pollution that pretty much always result.

00:04:54

S1: To some degree, you could possibly argue that. Digital is the opposite of ethereal, that there's there's probably no industry that is more material intense and polluting. Graham four. Graham Pound for pound. If you look at the actual type of metal, the variety and type of materials and there there negative polluting potential consequences if they're not properly cared for and looked after.

00:05:31

S2: Yeah. I mean these kinds of sort of comparisons of different industrial sectors can, you know, it, it can be really.

00:05:39

S3: Tricky to have commence measures.

00:05:41

S2: But there is you know, there is good work in the, you know, the early.

00:05:46

S3: 2000s for sure, by industrial engineers talking about.

00:05:52

S2: Not just talking about, but.

00:05:53

S3: Demonstrating the the energy and material footprints that are required for making digital devices.

00:06:01

S2: And I think there's a couple of points.

00:06:05

S3: That are important to try and sort of disentangle here. And so one of them is that.

00:06:11

S2: You know, digital devices do rely.

00:06:15

S3: On some materials that are.

00:06:20

S2: Let's say, different.

00:06:21

S3: Than other industrial products, you know, the so-called three G, tin, tungsten, gold, these sorts of metals, rare earths and whatnot.

00:06:36

S2: That you don't.

00:06:37

S3: Necessarily find in other consumer.

00:06:40

S2: Products, though not exclusively.

00:06:41

S3: Gold is it is an obvious one. Copper is another obvious one.

00:06:45

S2: That you would.

00:06:46

S3: Find in, say, traditional automobile manufacturing.

00:06:50

S2: But something that does.

00:06:51

S3: Set digital technologies apart in terms of their energy and material footprints for for manufacturing.

00:07:00

S2: Is that to get the purity of.

00:07:03

S3: Materials that you need to.

00:07:05

S2: Make.

00:07:06

S3: Things like semiconductors so that they will work properly.

00:07:10

S2: Requires substantially more energy.

00:07:15

S3: And material inputs in terms of.

00:07:19

S2: Purifying.

00:07:20

S3: Those materials.

00:07:22

S2: Enough that they.

00:07:23

S3: Can then be used to manufacturing, manufacture, digital devices.

00:07:27

S2: So one.

00:07:28

S3: Analogy that I've I've recall from my reading in this area is that.

00:07:34

S2: If you think about the purity of.

00:07:36

S3: Materials needed for manufacturing a silicon ingot, which is like a giant cylinder of.

00:07:43

S2: Well, not sort of a desk sized.

00:07:45

S3: Cylinder of of metal required for making the silicon that goes into semiconductor manufacturers.

00:07:54

S2: I don't know if you have this.

00:07:55

S3: Candy in Ireland, but Tic Tacs are.

00:07:57

S2: A a little.

00:07:59

S3: Candy that comes in a tiny little box or.

00:08:02

S2: Smaller.

00:08:02

S3: Each individual tic tac is, you know, smaller than your fingernail. And the analogy that I've seen in the literature in terms of the.

00:08:10

S2: Purity.

00:08:11

S3: Of silicon that you.

00:08:12

S2: Would need you would need to.

00:08:13

S3: Line up those tic talks from the West Coast of the United States to.

00:08:17

S2: The East Coast, and only one tic.

00:08:19

S3: Tac in that line could be.

00:08:22

S2: Impure. That's the level of.

00:08:25

S3: Purity that you would it is required for making those those semiconductors.

00:08:33

S2: And to get that kind of.

00:08:34

S3: Purity requires massive amounts of energy and intermediate.

00:08:40

S2: Inputs.

00:08:42

S3: So there are really, if you will, heavy consequences to manufacturing.

00:08:48

S1: These devices are very interesting. And I don't know whether it's connected, but I, I saw this study that we are digging out of the earth in 2020, 100 billion tons, and that roughly 90 billion tons of it is is waste. But then when I did calculations on roughly the waste that I was seeing in the figures for electronics, it was more like 99.9% to get you a piece, it was 99.9% waste it. Would that be roughly, you know, in the you know, that to build a car or to build something else, it's 90% of the materials go to waste and 10% of them are usable. But to build it, the the chip or the other things, it's a kind of 99.9% of the materials go to waste and it's just at point 1% that's usable.

00:09:52

S2: Yeah, I think I mean, it's very it does depend on where sort of in the.

00:09:56

S3: In the life of a thing. You look at it.

00:10:01

S2: But so in the.

00:10:02

S3: In the mining sector.

00:10:04

S2: It is very normal for.

00:10:06

S3: The mining sector. I mean, you.

00:10:08

S2: Know, industry.

00:10:11

S3: Journals, industry representatives to talk about, you know, anywhere between 98 and 99% of a given mines materials.

00:10:24

S2: Is considered waste.

00:10:26

S3: And, you know, they will use that term waste or overburden.

00:10:31

S2: So those numbers that you're that you're mentioning, there are certainly within the realm of of what would be.

00:10:37

S3: Considered very normal in the mining sector, regardless of whether it is about mining materials for electronics or other other products.

00:10:51

S2: There's a couple of things I think can be said there. One is, is that for some materials.

00:10:58

S3: Many, many metals, for example.

00:11:01

S2: Their, you know, their mind.

00:11:03

S3: And go into many different types of products, not just digital devices. Copper is a classic example, but, you know, there's certainly others. Aluminum is another classic example.

00:11:17

S2: And it can be very hard to kind of at the at.

00:11:20

S3: The let's say at the mine site to disentangle, you know, how much of of the or coming out is going into this or that manufacturing sector down the line, as it were.

00:11:38

S2: So but as I say.

00:11:40

S3: It's very normal in the in the mining world to talk about, you know, 98 to 99% of the material that is being moved around to be considered waste. So that that very much accords with the numbers that you're talking about.

00:11:57

S1: Why is it so important? This conversation that we're having now that we're talking about manufacturing? You know, it's probably not a subject that gets a lot of attention. I know, you know, e-waste is getting more are getting a fair bit of attention. But but often, you know, we don't hear that much about the manufacturing angle. Why is it so important we really smart thinking more about about this manufacturing angle?

00:12:27

S2: Yeah. So there's a few reasons. So one is in terms of just the sheer weight.

00:12:36

S3: The sheer level of of harm, toxicity, etc.. Most of the waste arising and most of the.

00:12:47

S2: Effects are being felt by people.

00:12:51

S3: And places and ecologies that are. I'll use the term.

00:12:56

S2: Upstream.

00:12:57

S3: Of where, say, you and I as consumers of devices purchase and use our our, our digital technologies.

00:13:07

S2: So now one of the reasons.

00:13:10

S3: That so much attention is on consumer waste or e-waste that that, you know, you and I as as users of devices when we get rid of them. One of the reasons there's so much attention on that is.

00:13:24

S2: Because I think it seems very.

00:13:27

S3: Obvious to us that that's where the waste happens.

00:13:30

S2: Because you and I have a.

00:13:33

S3: Tangible connection to it. Right. We can see it. We can feel it. We can if it's organic wastes from our households, we can smell it. You know, we're.

00:13:44

S2: Putting.

00:13:44

S3: It in this or that bin on a.

00:13:47

S2: On a daily or weekly.

00:13:49

S3: Basis. We're taking if there's kerbside collection where we live, we're taking it outside.

00:13:53

S2: So we have this very visceral connection to that portion of the waste stream. But in terms of the overall.

00:14:02

S3: Waste stream, what.

00:14:03

S2: You and.

00:14:04

S3: I see, feel, smell, etc..

00:14:07

S2: Is very tiny. You know, on the.

00:14:11

S3: Order of, you know, 2 to 10% of overall waste arising.

00:14:17

S2: 90 to 98%.

00:14:19

S3: Of the waste arising from our electronics happened before you and I even purchased the devices that we're now using.

00:14:29

S2: But we don't typically have.

00:14:32

S3: A direct connection to that. It's harder for us to see unless, you know, we happen to live.

00:14:42

S2: Or work.

00:14:43

S3: In, say, you know.

00:14:45

S2: A.

00:14:46

S3: Mine or near it or we live and work near a manufacturing facility. We, you know, we have a less a much less direct connection to that upstream. Waste.

00:15:00

S2: And yet, as I say, that's.

00:15:03

S3: Where most of the the waste and pollution from electronics is is happening. So.

00:15:11

S2: It's important to sort of expand.

00:15:13

S3: The frame, as you will, if you will, or.

00:15:16

S2: Turn, turn or.

00:15:17

S3: View upstream and and come to grips with the magnitude of pollution and waste arising before we even purchase our devices. If we want to come up with ways of mitigating or eliminating the the waste from electronics.

00:15:38

S1: Perhaps this is part of what I might call the Larry Summers effect. Or, you know, I came across this quote by by him. He was a senior economist in the World Bank and part of the U.S. government, and this was back in 1991. And he said, you know, just between you and me, this was an internal email. And just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the least developed countries? And that, you know, there's a lot of thinking now that, you know, the global north has essentially outsourced its its pollution to the global south, which you kind of segway your point about. We've we've hidden the problem, so to speak, of the manufacture of of our of our shiny new, you know, devices.

00:16:41

S2: Mm hmm. Yeah. So, I mean, that has occurred in in many ways that that quote from.

00:16:49

S3: Larry Summers and a related one often comes up in the kind of pollution and waste research that I do in it.

00:16:56

S2: You know, I, I think well, there is truth in it. It's also important to.

00:17:03

S3: To recognize that.

00:17:07

S2: It is no longer.

00:17:10

S3: Just the global north. It is a that are users of these devices that there is a great deal of what some people talk about as as South-South trade.

00:17:25

S2: In.

00:17:25

S3: Terms of designing, building, consuming these devices.

00:17:30

S2: And I mean, so I'm not trying to minimize what.

00:17:37

S3: You know, if we look at a sort of from an industrial evolution sort of point of view, there has been a great deal of, you know, outsourcing or offshoring of industrial production to places outside the Global North End. One of the consequences of that is the, you know, the migration of of pollution.

00:18:02

S2: To those places. But we also I think today, you know, we live in a world.

00:18:10

S3: Where.

00:18:12

S2: People.

00:18:14

S3: Around the world are using and consuming these devices.

00:18:18

S2: And it's just a little bit more complicated than putting the global.

00:18:24

S3: North at the sort of the center of things and always the the driver, as it were. Yeah.

00:18:31

S1: True. True. No, that that's a good point. And paints a bit of a picture of, you know, a town or a community where you would probably it's going to be in the Global South, even though, as you said, there's because lots of south to south trade as well that is living close to say a mine with a big, you know, tailings or slag. You know, you know, the mine has been there for five years or ten years or 15 years. What's what's it's going to be like there? What's, you know, what are the the danger, you know, what's the overall picture of that community's life and how?

00:19:12

S3: When the ore body is exposed to the atmosphere and to precipitation, you can get things like acid mine.

00:19:19

S2: Drainage.

00:19:21

S3: From just plain old rainfall and the chemical reactions that occur as a consequence. And that acidified drainage can mobilize other chemicals that are naturally.

00:19:33

S2: Occurring in the ore body and those.

00:19:35

S3: Can be quite.

00:19:36

S2: Toxic.

00:19:37

S3: And of course, you know, water flows where it will. So that can flow into other systems, agricultural systems, dry drinking water systems and so on and so forth.

00:19:48

S2: So the effects can flow well.

00:19:53

S3: Beyond the mine site.

00:19:54

S2: Even.

00:19:54

S3: Even the adjacent community. The negative effects can flow quite far beyond the community in question.

00:20:05

S2: So it can it can be quite hard to sort of paint a.

00:20:09

S3: You know, a generally applicable picture because of these sort of site specific conditions that can make such a difference.

00:20:19

S1: One of the things that does exist in a lot of environments would be these are kind of tailings, lakes are and how big can they be or what would they be? More likely you'd get a big tailings lake. Describe it because I've never well I've only seen pictures of them in I don't know if you clean them up live, but you know, there are things that not we don't really know about that. But, you know, those these big tailings lakes, they're not going to go away, are they? You know, they're going to stay for thousands of years under quite dangerous in the environment. And what sort of sizes could we be talking about.

00:20:59

S2: Putting that sort of the magnitude in in perspective can be it can be really hard. I mean, I have stood on the edge.

00:21:09

S3: Of a mine in Arizona, a copper mine in Arizona called the Copper Queen Mine, which is adjacent to a fairly small city called Bisbee, Arizona. The Copper Queen Mine in the late 19th, early.

00:21:32

S2: 20th century.

00:21:33

S3: If I'm remembering my history correctly.

00:21:35

S2: It was one of the.

00:21:36

S3: Biggest mine sites at the time.

00:21:40

S2: And when you stand.

00:21:41

S3: On, it's a it's an open pit mine. When you stand on the lookout that is now right adjacent to the road that that runs around its rim.

00:21:50

S2: I mean, it it is an.

00:21:53

S3: Overwhelmingly vast hole in the ground. It's sort.

00:21:56

S2: Of you know, it is the it's a reverse.

00:21:59

S3: Mountain. If if that makes sense. It it is.

00:22:06

S2: It's.

00:22:07

S3: Almost.

00:22:09

S2: It's hard to grasp the scale when you.

00:22:12

S3: Look across the rim and you can see buildings on the other side that, you know.

00:22:20

S2: The scale is.

00:22:21

S3: So vast that it's hard to sort of determine how. Visually how far away you are until you might see someone walking as this, you know, this tiny dot on the other side of the rim.

00:22:34

S1: Wow. It sounds like a meteorite strike.

00:22:39

S2: It. Yeah, it's, it's similar to that kind of thing, I think. I mean, one of the interesting things about that specific.

00:22:46

S3: One is that.

00:22:49

S2: When you look at.

00:22:50

S3: The site from an aerial photo or from a satellite photo, you can.

00:22:55

S2: See the.

00:22:55

S3: Mine tailings that have been dug out of the ground and placed adjacent to the mine and on which the town itself is. B Arizona.

00:23:03

S2: Some parts of it are built.

00:23:05

S3: On top of it. So the town is almost like the negative image of the hole in the ground. Yeah.

00:23:16

S1: And, you know, for those who, you know, are not aware or I suppose there's all sorts of types of tailings is essentially the waste of the mining process. And, and in some environments the last thing you'd want to do is build a town on, on, on a tailing.

00:23:37

S2: For sure. Yeah. Yeah, I no, for sure. I mean, even in the case of Bisbee, Arizona, you know, here we are.

00:23:45

S3: In what is.

00:23:47

S2: The.

00:23:48

S3: Most or second most wealthiest country in the world, the United States. And that the.

00:23:53

S2: Town itself is still decades.

00:23:56

S3: After the mine itself has closed, dealing with the local toxic consequences of that mining that that went on for, you know, let's say a century or so, you know, a hundred years or so before it from opening to closing.

00:24:16

S2: So in terms of and in very, you know, sort of quotidian.

00:24:21

S3: Everyday ways, you know, people not being able to in their yards, being able to plant food gardens because of the the toxins in the soil, the the dust in the in the town is also a problem because of the toxic chemicals that are.

00:24:45

S2: Just resident.

00:24:46

S3: In the soil as a consequence of what gets called the overburden of the mine being, you know, deposited at the surface.

00:24:55

S2: Um, so the reason I mention this.

00:24:59

S3: Particular example is.

00:25:00

S2: That the image.

00:25:01

S3: Is often, you know, a, an impoverished and, and racialized community in the Global South that is strongly affected by these kinds of industrial sites. And of course, that is that happens. Absolutely. But we don't have to go to the global south to find them there. There are legacy sites in the global.

00:25:29

S2: North and ones that.

00:25:31

S3: Are ongoing. You know.

00:25:34

S1: One of the things you said earlier in this conversation about that certain minerals are more particular to electronics. Are there any minerals of this particular set that are more mining intensive are environmentally damaging, damaging that that you could maybe describe a little that that has a bigger negative impact than, say, other other sort of minerals mining that are essential for our smartphones or or laptops.

00:26:16

S2: It's actually hard to tie the degree of of harm arising from mining to the particular materials.

00:26:24

S3: Involved.

00:26:24

S2: It has. I mean, not that there's no.

00:26:27

S3: Difference.

00:26:28

S2: But it has more to.

00:26:30

S3: Do with the.

00:26:32

S2: The mining.

00:26:33

S3: Practices involved, the magnitude of them and how they're.

00:26:38

S2: Organized. So yeah, I think that you can find extreme forms of harm sort of.

00:26:51

S3: No matter what the material, whether it's something as.

00:26:54

S2: Relatively.

00:26:56

S3: Mundane as say tin or aluminum being mined or something like cobalt, you know, tungsten, the the more infamous rare earth metals it has.

00:27:12

S2: I think it has.

00:27:13

S3: More to do with the mining practices that are the issues, the the kinds of controls or lack thereof on things like tailings ponds, acid mine drainage and and whatnot.

00:27:31

S2: And I so again, not trying to diminish by any means.

00:27:36

S3: The the negative. Environmental consequences that occur from mining.

00:27:42

S2: But I think it would.

00:27:44

S3: Be it's.

00:27:45

S2: Difficult to.

00:27:46

S3: Say that say, you know, copper is relatively okay relative to, I don't know, tantalum mining. It really it really matters on how the mining is done more so than than the materials, I would say.

00:28:02

S1: And is there a how they're like you mentioned cobalt that is that generally speaking certain materials because of where they're located have poor mining practices are. Is is that is it just, you know, a generalized thing? There are there are instances of of more poor mining practices associated with with certain materials because of where they're physically located.

00:28:34

S2: Mining, mining and mining companies.

00:28:36

S3: Go where the or is and also where.

00:28:43

S2: The the.

00:28:43

S3: Or is located at the.

00:28:46

S2: To be crass about it at the cheapest possible price. Right. Because their.

00:28:49

S3: Ultimate goal is to realize the highest.

00:28:51

S2: Profit.

00:28:52

S3: That is what they do. And when you get a combination of all all of those factors in in a jurisdiction where there is either a lack of regulation.

00:29:09

S2: On mining practices.

00:29:10

S3: Or a lack of enforcement or both, then you're more likely to have, you know, a higher degree of negative environmental and human consequences. And.

00:29:28

S2: You know, there can be.

00:29:30

S3: There's a lot of attention on the so-called informal sector and or sometimes it gets called artisanal mining, for example, in Congo as it relates to things like tantalum and which is an important material for for electronics.

00:29:52

S2: But, you know, I think that that.

00:29:56

S3: Attention needs to be nuanced enough to to take into account the.

00:30:03

S2: The huge.

00:30:04

S3: Magnitude of what I would just describe as normal industrial mining, which, you know, far, far outweighs in terms of negative consequences. What what happens from, you know, the the informal sector or or the artisanal sector.

00:30:26

S2: Especially in.

00:30:27

S3: Terms of, you know, just the the vastly different.

00:30:30

S2: Power those those two.

00:30:33

S3: Groups, if we can call them that have. I mean, people working in the informal sector are. Living in conditions that are very different than, say, the CEOs of major mining companies.

00:30:50

S1: So could you say, you know, like I grew up in a farm in a very small farm, and, you know, if you if you do your farming properly or if you, you know, you change your potatoes in one field a share, and then you don't have them in the same year, let the field go fallow or whatever. And but over time, you know, if you do it right, you're not really, so to speak, damaging the land or certainly don't give the indicator, you know, that you can farm sustainably in many ways. But is it is there such a thing as sustainable mining or is it is all mining? All mining kind of does damage is just kind of the least damage because when when a mine leaves an area or when it's mined out, it it's you know, it's most of those areas are going to really struggle to recover so.

00:31:50

S2: Well, certainly within human.

00:31:52

S3: Timescales. Yes.

00:31:56

S2: Yeah. Is there such a thing as sustainable mining? I think I think that is I think that is.

00:32:03

S3: You know, the multi multibillion dollar question.

00:32:07

S2: I think the.

00:32:08

S3: Short answer is that.

00:32:11

S2: Industrial.

00:32:15

S3: Scale mining as we know it now.

00:32:18

S2: Is.

00:32:19

S3: Not sustainable. It is it is not something that that can go on indefinitely in the form that it that it currently takes. So what does that mean?

00:32:35

S2: It has major implications for how.

00:32:40

S3: And I have to sort of put it in air quotes here, how.

00:32:43

S2: We.

00:32:45

S3: Because who is that that benefits from those those industrial mining practices, how we order and organise our lives.

00:32:56

S2: I think, you know, this is a very broad.

00:33:00

S3: Brushstroke and a bit abstract, but I think.

00:33:03

S2: The key is figuring out how.

00:33:05

S3: To learn to live with sufficiency. And there are a lot of different ways to do that.

00:33:17

S2: But I think.

00:33:18

S3: You know, sort of in slightly more concrete terms, it.

00:33:21

S2: Means figuring.

00:33:22

S3: Out how to learn to live with substantially reduced material and energy throughput in the systems that that we live in, in the, you know, the global north, as it were.

00:33:39

S2: But even even within.

00:33:40

S3: That, there are really important distinctions to be made between, you know, different groups of people and how they are oriented in terms of economic class and and associated, you know, ideas there.

00:34:00

S1: Just listening to you there, the conundrum or contradiction of renewables and as you point out there as a target, you know, we don't have an energy production problem. We have an energy consumption problem. As you say, we we consume far too much energy, but we are building if we look at, you know, e-cars are electric vehicles, for example. You know, from what I've read, they are in their production. They are 4 to 5 times more materially intense that so a mining dependent than our traditional vehicles. So if mining is not sustainable and we're building this industry that we call sustainable or green on top of the non wholly unsustainable foundations, that's a kind of a too kind of a problem, isn't it?

00:34:57

S2: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. No, it certainly.

00:35:02

S3: Is.

00:35:02

S2: I think, you know, one of the ways that that.

00:35:06

S3: Specific example that you're talking about there, electric vehicles, does to some degree dovetail with my work because these cars are increasingly, you know, I think it's relevant to think of them as sort of computers on wheels rather than than cars in the in the more traditional sense. So there there is some overlap with my work here.

00:35:28

S2: And that isn't to say that I would you know, that.

00:35:33

S3: I would I think electric vehicles are a bad idea inherently. I wouldn't I wouldn't make that point.

00:35:41

S2: But, you know, they also are not.

00:35:44

S3: Going to solve the climate emergency for us. They you know, mining comes with harms that are not just related to carbon. They're, you know, there are toxic harms, other environmental harm, social harms, etc..

00:36:05

S2: So I think, you know, thinking about electric vehicles.

00:36:12

S3: As renewables and and the broader discourse of sort of what to call it, green consumerism or green capitalism.

00:36:23

S2: If it is premised on continued growth, then it is inherently unsustainable.

00:36:31

S3: And that is an internal contradiction that those of us who care about such things need to need to sort out.

00:36:43

S2: I think there are there are ways to do that, but it means, you know.

00:36:49

S3: Broad systemic changes.

00:36:52

S1: Now one slightly changing focus. A quote from one of your articles I found really fascinating about all of it. I'm fascinated by one was when you said, you know, one of the best places for environmental camps to look for previously unknown chemical pollutants is not in the environment or nature, but in the residues of previously manufactured commodities, particularly discarded electronics. Mm hmm. Could you just explain that a bit? Because it sounds it sounds like an alien horror movie or the plot of of a new alien horror movie or something like that in in. You know, so maybe you could just expand on that a little bit.

00:37:47

S2: Sure. Yeah, it is. It's a counterintuitive kind of a description. I know, but but it's it's very concrete, very, as it were, down to earth. So it can be somewhat, I guess, amazing to learn that. We have very little.

00:38:13

S3: Understanding.

00:38:14

S2: Of the sort of chemical, the the galaxy of chemicals that all of our.

00:38:24

S3: You know, sort of daily products that are surrounding us and even in our homes that we live.

00:38:30

S2: Inside.

00:38:31

S3: Are made of, which.

00:38:32

S2: You know, might be surprising to listeners who might think, well, the industries must.

00:38:36

S3: Know the chemicals that are going into their, you know, this or that product that they're making.

00:38:43

S2: And that is true, but only to a very small extent. So there there are quite literally millions.

00:38:53

S3: Of.

00:38:53

S2: Different.

00:38:54

S3: Chemicals available for industrial.

00:38:56

S2: Uses, but only, you know, sort of on the order of thousands have never been tested.

00:39:06

S3: For their.

00:39:07

S2: Toxicity. So there's a there's there are differences by orders of magnitude between knowing the toxic.

00:39:19

S3: Consequences of this or that chemical.

00:39:23

S2: And the number of chemicals.

00:39:27

S3: That exist for industrial uses.

00:39:29

S2: So people who are experts.

00:39:31

S3: In this areas.

00:39:33

S2: You know, people who would.

00:39:34

S3: Self-identify as environmental toxicologists.

00:39:38

S2: Where in in looking for new toxins of concern. There is.

00:39:47

S3: One publication in.

00:39:49

S2: Particular that I cite in my work makes this point very explicit that that they have found a previously unknown chemical toxicant not out in the.

00:40:02

S3: Environment, as it were, in sort of, you know, some unexplored cave or something like.

00:40:07

S2: That. But quite literally, in the in the dust.

00:40:13

S3: From electronics recycling facilities in Canada or the household dust in in in.

00:40:22

S2: Homes that participated.

00:40:23

S3: In the study in again in Canada.

00:40:27

S2: So there are, as I say, there are so many chemicals available.

00:40:33

S3: For industrial.

00:40:33

S2: Use that it completely exceeds all of the testing capacity on Earth to keep up with.

00:40:44

S3: The number of new chemicals being.

00:40:48

S2: Made.

00:40:48

S3: And made available for for industrial use.

00:40:51

S2: So there is literally no way to.

00:40:54

S3: Fully know the extent, if you will, of the chemical galaxy that we find ourselves increasingly living.

00:41:04

S1: And maybe this is an extreme comparison, but I didn't you know, I was thinking about it in the last couple of weeks that that, you know, we constantly worry, and rightly so, about nuclear power and nuclear waste. But we have we seem to have treated e-waste in an extremely, you know, lax way. Like, I mean, less and less than 20% of e-waste is is properly recycled. And so the rest of it either goes to poor countries or whatever. And and you can't throw this stuff away. You know, there is no way the like this forever chemicals and minerals and all the stuff. So we, you know, is e-waste, you know, with all and we're dumping 50, 50 million tonnes and soon to be 100 million tonnes of e-waste every year. Is it you know potentially we are ahead in time bomb that's full of nasty surprises for for future generations.

00:42:08

S2: In some sense for sure I think you know I think nuclear waste has a as.

00:42:15

S3: A kind of.

00:42:16

S2: Spectacular, you know, imaginary that goes with it in part because.

00:42:23

S3: Of the somewhat.

00:42:25

S2: Excuse me, spectacular accidents that have.

00:42:27

S3: Gone with it. You know, Fukushima being one of the more recent ones, Three Mile Island.

00:42:35

S2: You know, these were.

00:42:36

S3: Very.

00:42:38

S2: Punctuated events and very media genic, which I think at least goes some.

00:42:45

S3: Way to explaining why we think of nuclear waste as somehow.

00:42:49

S2: Special. But I think you're you're exactly right. It's very important for us to understand that many, many of the everyday, mundane.

00:42:59

S3: Objects around or that are part of so many of our lives, everything.

00:43:05

S2: From, you know, a typical.

00:43:08

S3: Contemporary.

00:43:09

S2: Tel Aviv.

00:43:09

S3: Vision to a phone, to a computer. What have.

00:43:12

S2: You are made of materials.

00:43:15

S3: That, from a geologic point of view, are effectively.

00:43:20

S2: Permanent. They will last long, long.

00:43:27

S3: Beyond anything recognizable as as, you know, contemporary society or.

00:43:33

S2: Perhaps, you know, even even humans as a species.

00:43:38

S3: Plastics do not break down over timelines that are have any relationship to human lifetimes. Same with other materials that out of which our devices are manufactured.

00:43:55

S2: So in many ways, that kind of exotic or special.

00:44:00

S3: Sense that goes with something like nuclear waste is built right into many of the things that you and I, you know, would handle in an everyday way.

00:44:13

S2: Even as we speak, you know, the.

00:44:15

S3: The earphones around my head are made of plastics and metals.

00:44:18

S2: That will.

00:44:19

S3: Last for.

00:44:20

S2: Four millennia.

00:44:22

S1: Yeah. And as you as you indicate, when they get dumped or dead, somebody uses a blowtorch on them or acids are or even just rain. There can be chemical reactions or combinations, you know, with those relatively currently innocuous our iPhones or or laptops that can can create new combinations of harm as well that that so so finally, you know, summarize it what can we do? You know, what can government what can citizens brand original manufacturers, you know mitigate you know, how can we mitigate or how can we be better? You know, I heard this great phrase, other I think it was from some native person in some societies, either the Maori or some in New Zealand about about the need to be a good ancestor. And that, you know, I think most people would not want to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren and for Diana. You know, daughter is that is that is horrible antioxidant and destructive and you know what how but we but we still want our phones and we still want our you know, we don't want a like I grew up in a small farm. We didn't even have a tractor. And that was no fun. You know, technology can give you, you know, without technology, it's a backbreaking, hard lot really, really, really hard and difficult life. So without giving up all of these things, is there ways that, you know, I was talking to a scientist there a couple of weeks ago and he was saying, you know, the first Nokia has had about four or five materials. You know, now they've got about 60 Mitre. I mean, can we still have good phones with less materials? Because if we've got, you know, less materials that they're easier to disassemble and separate or what what what's the path forward? Yeah. What if growth is going to destroy, you know, if there's no such thing as sustainable mining. But we need to do a bit of it, you know. But what was the path forward?

00:46:46

S2: Yeah, well, I think one I think the important thing is to think.

00:46:49

S3: Of as multiple paths and they may or may not intertwine with one another.

00:46:55

S2: Rather than a single.

00:46:56

S3: You know, magic bullet.

00:46:57

S2: So maybe let's start.

00:47:00

S3: With individuals as citizens and consumers.

00:47:04

S2: Since I think that that's what is.

00:47:06

S3: Relevant to a lot of listeners. Right. That's sort of the automatic is like, what can I do?

00:47:11

S2: And I would say a couple of things. One is quite.

00:47:16

S3: To be honest, which.

00:47:17

S2: Is as an individual, there's very little that you can do. And I know that that can be a bit of a setback or a depressing thing. But if you think about it, going into a electronics store and.

00:47:29

S3: You're going to buy a new phone or laptop or what have you.

00:47:32

S2: You have a pretty large.

00:47:36

S3: Array of choices around.

00:47:38

S2: Models and specifications.

00:47:40

S3: And price ranges and whatnot.

00:47:43

S2: And so it would appear that you have.

00:47:46

S3: A, you know, a wide variety of choice.

00:47:48

S2: But when it comes to the underlying materials that all of those different models and makes and brands are made of or the.

00:47:55

S3: Underlying labor.

00:47:56

S2: Conditions, they are so similar as to make the idea of consumer.

00:48:01

S3: Choice as a as a as a path forward to a more sustainable relationship with electronics. Basically meaningless because the as I say, the underlying materials are so.

00:48:12

S2: Similar across those makes.

00:48:13

S3: Models, brands and the underlying labor conditions are so similar.

00:48:17

S2: So save yourself some time and don't think that consumer.

00:48:24

S3: Choice is is going to.

00:48:28

S2: Be.

00:48:29

S3: A major way to mitigate.

00:48:32

S2: You. You can the most environmental device you have is the one you already have. So you can keep using what you already have as long as possible. You can pass it along.

00:48:45

S3: For reuse to friends, families, friends, family, you know, other organizations.

00:48:54

S2: But beyond those, there's there's not much that individual.

00:48:58

S3: Action can do.

00:48:59

S2: You can learn to repair. What does matter is organized consumer action.

00:49:05

S3: And that really means organized citizen action.

00:49:08

S2: And that might sound abstract, but so much of the way, you know.

00:49:14

S3: At least in in Western Europe and in in Canada U.S..

00:49:19

S2: So much of our lives without. So you really think you better are already ordered as a consequence of historical.

00:49:29

S3: Organized citizen action to, you know, have better conditions.

00:49:35

S2: For example, you know, we in in Canada or the U.S., you've got Health Canada.

00:49:42

S3: You've got the Food and Drug Administration.

00:49:45

S2: These are bodies that regulated.

00:49:49

S3: Things like.

00:49:49

S2: Pharmaceuticals, like food that didn't just appear out of, you know, sort of.

00:49:59

S3: The altruism of of lawmakers.

00:50:01

S2: It came out of organized consumer.

00:50:04

S3: Action in the.

00:50:06

S2: You know, late 19th, early 20th centuries. And now, as a consequence of that, for the most part, you know, there are high degrees of safety.

00:50:18

S3: Around.

00:50:18

S2: Food products that we.

00:50:20

S3: Consume.

00:50:21

S2: And pharmaceuticals.

00:50:22

S3: That we consume.

00:50:24

S2: That, you know, companies that make those.

00:50:28

S3: Products.

00:50:29

S2: Have to.

00:50:29

S3: Demonstrate.

00:50:30

S2: In advance of them being put on the market that those products are safe.

00:50:35

S3: Within certain limits.

00:50:38

S2: Now that, as I say, that wasn't it wasn't always like that, and it didn't happen by itself. And also the examples.

00:50:45

S3: That I just.

00:50:45

S2: Gave.

00:50:45

S3: There, the FDA and or Health Canada.

00:50:47

S2: I mean, there are caveats.

00:50:49

S3: That come with it. They're certainly not perfect institutions by any means.

00:50:54

S2: But but what those examples tell us is that those are multi.

00:51:00

S3: Multibillion dollar industries, food and pharmaceuticals. And we found ways to regulate them in ways that lead to a safer.

00:51:11

S2: Not safe, but a safer material world. It tells us that if we can do it in those sectors, we.

00:51:18

S3: Can do it in other.

00:51:19

S2: Sectors. Another example is the automobile sector.

00:51:24

S3: You know.

00:51:24

S2: Not all that.

00:51:27

S3: Long ago, things like automobile safety was completely voluntary and controlled by, you know, an industry consortium of, you know, an oligopoly, basically, basically of three or four car manufacturers. But organized consumer action. At me, you know, advocated for regulation that eventually became things like the National Transportation and Safety Administration in the United States.

00:51:59

S2: And as a.

00:52:00

S3: Consequence of regulations that came out of that.

00:52:03

S2: You know, you cannot buy a car.

00:52:05

S3: Without, for example, working.

00:52:07

S2: Seatbelts. That wasn't always the case.

00:52:10

S1: Maybe examples, recent examples of that, you know, are all the millions of young people, the Greta Thunberg movement erm and of course the right to repair movement which, which was absolutely not driven by government and was not. And I'm totally not driven by the brands. In fact they tried to destroy it on multiple occasions but you know, it wasn't some it wasn't some huge organization. And yet Right to Repair resonated, you know, because of citizen action.

00:52:44

S2: Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. I think speaking in broad brushstrokes, you know, it's important to think of ourselves as as citizens and to to work.

00:52:55

S3: Together as citizens to.

00:52:59

S2: Affect change. And in the it's a cliche, but in many ways, you know.

00:53:07

S3: That is how the biggest social shifts historically have happened. And they.

00:53:13

S2: It's that those those historical shifts are sort of, I think, for a lot of us, so taken for granted, so in the background, in the sense of they are part of the infrastructure.

00:53:26

S3: Of daily life, for example, those relatively safe foods and pharmaceuticals, those relatively safe automobiles.

00:53:35

S2: That are so mundane, they disappear.

00:53:38

S3: From our sense that.

00:53:40

S2: The.

00:53:40

S3: World was ever any other way. And yet, as I say.

00:53:45

S2: Those those three economic.

00:53:47

S3: Sectors automobiles, food, pharmaceuticals.

00:53:51

S2: All multi, multibillion dollar sectors, all historically and.

00:53:59

S3: Even now, somewhat, you know, controlled by a relatively small group of industrial interests.

00:54:09

S2: So very powerful. And yet they have.

00:54:13

S3: Been forced to to change in certain ways how they manufacture the things that people as consumers bring into their to their daily lives.

00:54:28

S1: Finishing off said, let's say you're in your local community hall in your town and people are saying there's 20 or 30 or 50 citizens and they're there and they're saying, gosh, you know, we've read your stuff and we're listening. You know, we really want to do something. We want to get together. We want to get organized. You know, what is what is the seatbelt movement? What what should we organize around? What should we start? Is there a seatbelt focus, you know, that we could, you know, start writing letters about to our politicians? What would you say is the first thing you know that you'd say, well, we want to replace our battery? I don't know. You know what? What is there a you know, there's you got 50 enthusiastic citizens looking at you and saying, we want to do something. We want to get together and organize what's our seatbelt movement? Focus is there and maybe there just isn't one thing. But if you had to say to them, well, first focus on or focus on these couple of things.

00:55:36

S2: Yeah, I would yeah, I would say focus on a couple of things. I mean the first thing to do is, is to with that group would be to to as clearly as possible define what it is you want to achieve. Because you want to make sure that whatever action you're proposing matches up with the.

00:55:55

S3: Relationships that matter to the the problem you want to solve.

00:55:59

S2: So if you want, you know, longer lasting devices, then maybe it's organizing.

00:56:07

S3: Around right to repair, for example.

00:56:11

S2: And even then, though, you need to pay attention to the specifics of where your community is located. So for example, if I was, you know, in this town, this mythical town hall in Canada, I would have to grapple with the reality that Canada as a population is about the size of California. No major electronics manufacturer is going to make a Canadian phone that is a you know, only that that adheres to laws that we might get.

00:56:44

S3: Passed around say right to repair that are specific.

00:56:46

S2: To Canada. So what does that mean? I need to look to the.

00:56:51

S3: Jurisdictions where right to repair is really taking off or is instituted, for example, like in the EU.

00:56:59

S2: And say agitate with my local population, with local politicians to say, look, you should pass regulations that match or exceed what's.

00:57:11

S3: Going on in this much.

00:57:13

S2: Bigger, much.

00:57:13

S3: Richer jurisdiction, for example, the EU. So that, you know, our devices are are at least as long lasting. If that's one example, another.

00:57:27

S2: Example, if if your goal is.

00:57:28

S3: A safer like a chemically safer world around electronics, then again, I might look to what the European Union is doing with its.

00:57:41

S2: REACH.

00:57:41

S3: Legislation. I forget what that acronym stands for just off the top of my head, but.

00:57:46

S2: Basically it.

00:57:48

S3: Regulates how chemicals.

00:57:50

S2: Are used.

00:57:51

S3: And what chemicals can.

00:57:52

S2: Be used at all through in.

00:57:55

S3: Any manufacturing.

00:57:57

S2: Of products that enter into the EU market. That the reason.

00:58:02

S3: That's so important is that it.

00:58:03

S2: It's upstream.

00:58:05

S3: Right?

00:58:05

S2: It's, it's in the manufacturing sector.

00:58:08

S3: Which is where the, the design product design decisions are made.

00:58:14

S2: That have the biggest.

00:58:15

S3: Consequences for.

00:58:17

S2: What you personally.

00:58:19

S3: As a citizen or a consumer will later, you know, go and purchase and use in your life.

00:58:25

S1: If they were to say, well, just what your mean, if you you have a choice, you know, what would it be? The chemical focus? Would it be what would you you know, if it was if, you know, it was down to you to drive this community, what would you be? Right. Your I know you're doing this in your in your career, but if you had to if you had to pick, so would it be those less chemicals in electronics, less mature, a certain type of forever chemicals to try and reduce them or remove them or you know, we've got these 50 people that say and we want to follow you. Or one thing that would lead us towards what?

00:59:08

S2: Yeah, for sure. I think for me I would my focus would be on the chemical problems. And so this would be about, you know.

00:59:18

S3: Sort of designing a campaign around.

00:59:23

S2: Let's call it.

00:59:24

S3: Materials, some.

00:59:26

S2: Simple. The city for manufacturing.

00:59:30

S3: Perhaps putting, you know, like the rich legislation does in the EU, you know, hard caps on certain kinds of chemicals being used at all. So there are. To the extent that I understand it, there are provisions within that legislation that.

00:59:47

S2: Except in circumstances.

00:59:48

S3: Where there is.

00:59:49

S2: No.

00:59:50

S3: Viable substitute for a given chemical.

00:59:54

S2: There are certain.

00:59:56

S3: Toxicants that are regulated out of use altogether. I think that that is where I would focus my attention.

01:00:08

S1: If you're interested in these sorts of ideas, please check out my book, Worldwide Waste a Jerry McGovern Dot.com. To hear other interesting podcasts. Please visit this is heat city dot com.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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Dr. Josh Lepawsky is fascinated by connections between geography, technological systems, and their discards. He researches waste from the manufacturing of electronics to its end of life. He explores where e-waste accumulates and who it affects. He has a keen interest in “how maintenance and repair might offer lessons for figuring out how to live well together in permanently polluted and always breaking worlds. I started our chat by asking Josh about the “pernicious myth of digital-as-ethereal”

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Journey Mapping Fundamentals
Video Course
Journey Mapping Fundamentals
Join Gerry Scullion in a 100% video based course to learn about the theory and the craft of creating high-quality journey maps.
Gerry Scullion
TRAINER
Gerry Scullion
Stakeholder Mapping Essentials
Video Course
Stakeholder Mapping Essentials
Learn about how to create a Stakeholder Map, that helps with clarification of roles and relationships, bring deeper understanding of needs and demonstrate the level of importance regarding the success/failure of a service.
Gerry Scullion
TRAINER
Gerry Scullion