Electronic waste, or E-waste, and the journey towards environmentally-conscious technology

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by Zach Avery, News Editor

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During the Oct. 13 Apple Inc. event to announce the iPhone 12, the company’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson, revealed Apple’s plan of reaching net zero climate impact by 2030: A two-fold strategy of removing extraneous devices (such as headphones and chargers) from being packaged in with the new iPhone, as well as a mandatory compliance from their manufacturers to follow strict environmental guidelines. 

Jackson, a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), spoke from the roof of just one of the offices, stores and data centers (spread throughout 44 countries) that are 100% carbon neutral. The United Nations 2019 Global Climate Action Award was given to Apple Inc. for that recent accomplishment, and now the consumer tech company is looking to reach another seemingly insurmountable goal by 2030: Absolutely no impact on climate change.

How is that done?

Apple Inc. takes the effort to remove the same amount of atmospheric carbon that their manufacturing processes emitted in the past, calculating out to a zero result of carbon impact. Another tech company, Microsoft Corp., has dedicated themselves to similar efforts in the past, even going so far as to claim they will be carbon negative by 2030, as well as completely balancing out any past carbon emissions they had made in the past by 2050. These two companies can see that consumers are growing more conscientious of the climate impact their day-to-day habits create. So begins the most popular recent trend of going green in technology, convincing consumers to purchase their products in order to help the environment.

“Producer responsibility is something that America really lags behind some European countries in,” Jessica Bowen, the director of sustainability at Aquinas College, said, “Where producers are actually responsible for their electronic waste and throughout the life cycle of that item.”

Bowen leads AQ’s many recycling efforts, one of which being the recycling of electronic waste, or the toxic waste pollution that is caused by the improper recycling of used electronic devices. 

“If Aquinas purchases a computer, Aquinas is responsible for that electronic waste,” Bowen said, “Which is why it is so important for us to use responsible recyclers.”

The “responsible recycler” Bowen refers to is Grand Rapids’ own Comprenew Environmental, a non-profit dedicated to the careful disassembling of e-waste into component parts, followed by the reuse of said parts by affiliated suppliers. Comprenew is the international leader on recycling e-waste, recognized as the only non-profit in the world certified by both e-Stewards (the environmental conditions encouraged by the United Nations at the 1989 Basel Convention) and R2 (the standard set by the EPA). With e-waste taking up nearly 70% of toxic waste in landfills, leadership taken up by a West Michigan organization is a good sign that American recycling habits are beginning to take shape.

The National Safety Council estimates there are over 315 million obsolete computers and 500 million outdated cell phones in the United States alone. In the past, these devices have been manufactured using highly toxic materials: Lead, mercury, PVC plastics, etc. However, with tech companies taking the initiative to use recycled parts in their device manufacturing processes, as well as embracing e-waste recycling partners like Michigan’s Comprenew Environmental, the future of tech and our planet, in harmony, can look a little bit greener.

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