Smartphones and laptops are chemical reactors

“One of the best places for environmental chemists 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,” scientist Josh Lepawsky has stated.

“It can be somewhat amazing to learn that we have very little understanding of the galaxy of chemicals that all of our daily products that are surrounding us in our homes, are made of,” Josh explained to me in our podcast. “There are quite literally millions of different chemicals available for industrial use, but only in the order of thousands have ever been tested for their toxicity. Environmental toxicologists, in looking for new toxins of concern, have found a previously unknown chemical toxicant, not in some unexplored cave, but in the dust from electronic recycling facilities.

“There are so many chemicals available for industrial use that it completely exceeds all of the testing capacity on Earth to keep up with the number of new chemicals. There is literally no way to fully know the extent of the chemical galaxy that we find ourselves increasingly living in.”

It is hard to think that our smartphones and laptops are chemical warehouses and that when they become e-waste (as most of them will), they can act like chemical factories, producing new forms of dangerous chemicals and, like mini decaying nuclear reactors, emitting all sorts of toxins.

“Nuclear waste has a spectacular imagining that goes with it, in part because of the spectacular accidents that have occurred,” Josh states. “That goes some way to explain why we see nuclear waste as somehow special. But you’re exactly right. It’s important for us to understand that many, many of the mundane, everyday objects that are part of so many of our lives (TVs, phones, etc.) are made from materials that from a geological point of view are effectively permanent. They will last long, long after anything recognizable as contemporary society, perhaps even humans as a species. Plastics do not break down over timelines that have any relationship to human lifetimes. Same with other materials out of which our devices are manufactured. So, in many ways that kind of exotic or special sense that goes with something like nuclear waste is built right into many of the things that you and I would handle in an everyday way. Even as we speak, the earphones around my head are made of plastics and metals that will last for millennia.”

We are blind to the chemical and electronic world we have created. We have developed an enormous capacity to create and a pitiful understanding of what we have created and how to care for it properly. “Even in the US, the country that tracks the largest number of pollutant releases, fewer than 1% of all chemicals tested and found toxic are tracked,” Josh explained.

We must become much more mindful of what we create. If we want a future on this planet, we must take much better care of Nature, and that means respecting its materials, maintaining, cleaning up after ourselves, leaving no trace. We should not pursue ridiculous lies such as Net Zero, and rather focus on much more practical and useful ideas such as zero waste.

Josh Lepawsky chats with Gerry McGovern

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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