Polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, Cadmium and Mercury are just some of the toxic substances lurking in thousands of tonnes of e-waste being shipped to impoverished areas of the world under the supposedly progressive banner of recycling.
Reusing waste products is beneficial but long term there must be controls on the amount and type of electronic and electrical waste we produce – some 20 to 50 million tonnes a year world-wide. A study by Greenpeace released this week has once again named and shamed Western users and producers of technology for their blinkered and immature approach to consumerism.
It seems that when it comes to IT, buyers are still ruled by their inner child. The IT industry is fuelled by much of the same short-lived compulsion to own the latest shiny new thing that keeps Toys R US in business. Obsession quickly dissolves into indifference and the object is soon forgotten and eventually discarded.
This disposable approach to technology has been exacerbated by upgrade cycles which are tantamount to a conspiracy between hardware manufacturers and software developers to further fuel the incessant need to buy more. This strategy, in which buyers are also complicit, has been working out quite well for the past 30 years. But not for much longer it seems. An industry, and society, completely focused on the acquisition end of the product lifecycle is finally being forced to consider complete picture and take action.
Technology buyers in Ireland are already feeling the pinch from newly introduced IT recycling legislation. Rather than internalise the costs of disposal as the legislation intended, irresponsible retailers and manufacturers are simply upping their prices. But this short-sighted tactic will surely back-fire and impact sales in the long-term.
Despite attempts to fight the inevitable, an industry focused on progress and development is slowly coming to terms with the fact that ease of recycling a PC will shortly become as important as the clock-speed of its processor. Similarly, the tyranny imposed by upgrade cycles is being challenged by companies increasingly focused on how to their existing investment last as long as possible. Much of the popularity of open source software has been driven by its innate efficiency versus resource-hungry proprietary code, while developments such as utility computing and efficient thin clients offer a more efficient way to use finite resources.
But technology can only go so far. Ultimately we will have to learn to discipline our inner child and acquire that key adult attribute – learning to take responsibility for our actions.