Feeling the wasteful weight of the electronics age


A university campus like the one where I work is a fine place to receive constant reminders of one's age. For years, decades really, I paid no heed to older colleagues who complained that they had little in common with their undergraduate students. Now, however, I fully recognize that although I diligently work at keeping up, I am firmly on the other side of the digital divide. Here's a symptom: beginning sentences with the phrase "Back in the day ..."

Back in the day, I worried a lot about paper output. I saved boxes of the annoying flyers and reminders that arrived daily in my faculty mailbox (an actual metal cubbyhole in the department office) to bring to one of the few recycling bins on campus. I reused file folders (actual manila ones) over and over. I thriftily crammed assignment prompts onto half-sheets of paper to distribute to my classes. So as they arrived, I greeted each digital paper substitute with enthusiasm: fewer trees to kill! Course software stores my assignment prompts and other documents now; students can access them 24/7 on their phones and tablets and whatever other costly gadgets they have. Dozens of useless spam e-mails and reminders arrive daily in my electronic mailbox. The ones I must keep get moved to electronic folders. Little paper crosses my desk anymore.

But is this really so much better than "back in the day"? My former dismay at destroying trees has been replaced, I'm afraid, by dismay at those horrible pictures of tiny African and Asian children scavenging though piles of smoldering e-waste. Recycling paper now seems so established, so 20th century. Recycling of electronic devices, including phones, computers, TVs, and the like, is improving but still has a way to go.

Recently , two executives of a Colorado recycling company, Executive Recycling, were charged in federal court with illegally shipping several hundred containers of e-waste to China instead of recycling them responsibly, and misleading their customers about it. In part because of such abuses, the Obama administration's Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship has introduced a National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which directs the federal government to promote better and greener lifecycle management practices in the electronics industry (the carrot) and to closely control  the life cycle of the estimated 500,000 electronic devices used at any given time by the Feds themselves (the stick).

Just a few years ago as I walked through campus I was serenaded by the constant sound of thousands of phones ringing and phone conversations ("Nothing, dude. What are you doing?"). This has been replaced with the eerie quiet of thousands of fingertips tapping and sliding across the screens of smart phones. What happened to those flip phones and first-generation iPhones? What's going to happen to this old laptop that can't handle the new version of Microsoft Word? I'm going to sound like an old fogey for saying this, but the paperless revolution isn't as great - or green -- as we thought.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy Flickr user Ken Lee

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