“Fix it, dispose responsibly and buy better – how to choose more ethical tech”
“Technology should make our lives easier but it often makes life hell for those who make it and pollutes the environment”
“Many items we think should go in the bin can actually be repaired – if you know how.”
“Electronic waste is dumped into landfill at an astonishing rate and can leach poisonous substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury into the environment.”
The high-tech devices millions of Australians rely on are designed to make our lives easier – but, too often, they make life a living hell for workers in developing nations, while belching out pollution both here and abroad.
Most electronics start in mines, with materials then shipped around the world to be assembled in factories using toxic chemicals such as mercury, solvents and flame-retardants.
Conditions in these sweatshops are often unbearable. Foxconn, a major manufacturer of Apple products, was blamed for 18 worker suicides in China in 2010, and installed “anti-suicide nets” around its dormitories in response. A 2018 China Labor Watch report found workers in Catcher Technology’s Chinese factories stand for up to 10 hours a day making iPhone casings, their faces, eyes and hands often coming into direct contact with noxious chemicals.
Things don’t get better once we’ve used the products and want to upgrade. Electronic waste – known as e-waste – is dumped into landfill at an astonishing rate; according to Clean Up Australia, fewer than 1% of TVs and 10% of computers and laptops are recycled Australia-wide. Beyond the blatant waste of precious metals and resources, e-waste can leach poisonous substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury into our environment.
For the good of the planet – and our fellow humans – we must make smarter choices.
Repair before buying new
Technology is increasingly designed with a short lifespan to fuel consumerism – so stave off the next purchase by checking if broken things are fixable first. Beyond paying a local repairer, grassroots initiatives exist to teach everyday folk how to DIY.
Since 2014, a group of enterprising inner Sydney residents have run the free Bower repair cafe at Marrickville, where skilled volunteers share knowledge on repairing everything from dodgy electrical goods to cracked smartphone screens. It’s part of a global movement, with at least 20 repair cafes now operating across Australia.
“Many items we think should go in the bin can actually be repaired – if you know how,” says Caroline Ayling, spokeswoman for the Bower reuse and repair centre. “The skills have been lost and what we do with our repair cafe is try to give those skills back to the community.”
A more underground version is the nationwide “hackerspace” movement – community spaces packed with donated tools and machinery. Locals gather to fix broken items, upcycle cast-offs into new “Frankenstein-ed” machines and learn everything from wood making and metalwork to 3D printing and sewing. (See a list of locations across Australia here.)
Or simply turn to the internet: YouTube is a goldmine while Instructables has loads of useful online tutorials.
Dispose of unwanted technology responsibly
Before buying something new, consider how to get rid of the old one. Gifting functional technology on to local schools and charities can be a good option. Or donate to non-profit groups refurbishing technology for needy children and adults both in Australia and abroad. Givit operates nationally, or look for state-based organisations such as Sydney’s WorkVentures, Brisbane’s Computers 4 Learning, ITShare SA in the Adelaide Hills and Enable Social Enterprises in Melbourne.
If binning is the only option, seek out a recycling scheme. The federal government’s national television and computer recycling scheme has more than 1800 collection points and has recycled 130,000 tones of TV and ewaste since 2011. TechCollect does much the same, while MobileMuster recycles all mobile phones. Other good options that help to provide employment to people with disabilities include MRI e-cycle Solutions and Queensland’s Endeavour foundation.
Choose ethical versions of technology
Vote with your dollar and buy from companies that manufacture products as sustainability and ethically as possible. Researching a product before purchasing can be confusing and no brand is perfect, but some are better than others.
Australia’s Shop Ethical electronics guide and associated Electronics Companionis a good place to start, rating companies on their environmental and social track records. Delve deeper into specific issues with resources such as Baptist World Aid Australia’s Electronics Industry Trends Report, which looks at exploitation and forced labour, Greenpeace’s Rethink It product scorecard and Greenpeace’s guide to greener electronics, which analyses energy use, resource consumption and chemical elimination.
The free electronic product environmental assessment tool (EPEAT) can help businesses and non-profits to buy more environmentally friendly computer products. The tool is used across 43 countries by major players including KPMG, US federal agencies and the Australian government.
Look for better tech options
Better technology is on the horizon, as start-ups and companies respond to consumer calls for responsible manufacturing.
So far the standout is the Dutch-designed Fairphone smartphone (as yet only available in Europe), which combines conflict-free materials with modular parts that can be pulled apart and repaired or replaced for longer durability. In Ireland, iameco makes computers and laptops from almost entirely recyclable materials, and keyboards and mice largely from wood. Bulgarian company Olimex has also announced an open source DIY laptop kit called TERES-1, though building it requires considerable tech know-how.
Larger companies are creaking towards change, too – albeit slowly. HP’s Elite x2 1012 G1 laptop is designed to be fixed, and even has repair documentation online for those who wish to DIY. Dell’s Inspiron 15 7577 laptop had been hailed as upgradeable, mainly because the RAM and storage drives can be easily switched, increasing longevity.
E-waste recycling innovations are emerging, too. The University of New South Wales is melting down plastics and turning them into 3D printers. America’s Bayou With Love makes wedding rings using gold recovered from Dell gadgets. And Substation33, south of Brisbane, collects 150,000kg of e-waste each year, repurposing 94% while providing jobs for the long-term unemployed. Its products include electronic bikes, 3D printers androad signs.
“We accept anything with a plug or battery – we keep it pretty simple,” Substation33 founder Tony Sharp says. “Usually, the [mainstream recycling] process is: large machine, one human, crunch it up, turn it into ‘papier-mâché’ and call it recycling. At Substation, we create around 15,000 hours of paid employment a year. We’re about giving humans a crack.”
A second similar model, called Ewaste Connection, has now opened in Brisbane. Sharp would love to see the concept grow further. “What we have in every part of Australia is unemployment and electronic waste. We’ve also got empty sheds that nobody knows what to do with. It can all fit together. It just needs to be done locally by dedicated people.”