Where Is Away? Or, What Happens When You Flush the Toilet.

And perhaps more importantly, what happens when campus IT throws away old PCs.

Well, the answer is that there is no “away.” Just like the social construction of “race,” which for human beings really has no scientific biological sense but is a real social force due to the often subconscious beliefs (social facts) of humans in various societal contexts, there really is no such place as “away” as used in the term “throw away.” Yet we all use the term and, until a certain level of maturity is reached, young people may even assume there is such a place.

Yesterday, as I tried to catch up on my time tracking in my day job at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), I swore a mild epithet when I realized that I had “thrown away” my paper record of what I had done in September. But I really hadn’t thrown it “away,” I had instead placed it in a blue recycle bin and it was on its way to being recycled, somewhere.

One of the most memorable phrases from the World War II era is “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” which referred, of course, to letting slip information about the timing of warship deployments to unauthorized people (girlfriends).

Nowadays when we think we throw something away, we are instead jeopardizing the ship on which we all travel through space, the Earth and its biosphere. Because, nothing d'es really get thrown away, it just ends up somewhere else. We even, sometimes, use up a lot of energy and resources taking it “somewhere else.” Often what we throw away is highly toxic, yet we think little about the fact that it d'esn’t just go “away” but ends up somewhere else, just like what happens when we flush the toilet.

Downstream waste.

Why should this concern information technology managers and workers? It’s because we design, manage, and use tools which are relatively small yet contain huge amounts of toxic materials. For example:

· Some computer screens contain up to eight pounds of lead, which we now know is highly poisonous;
· Inside a CPU, circuit boards soldered with tin contain mercury and cadmium, likewise toxic substances; and
· There’s more, but why belabor the point?

Between 1997 and 2007, we will probably have disposed of, “thrown away,” more than half a million computers, for an estimated total of 1.5 billion pounds of lead, 3 million pounds of cadmium, and more than 600,000 pounds of mercury. And those estimates were made before the huge growth in popularity of even smaller (and more plentiful) devices such as PDAs and cell phones.

And, to compound the problem for electronics, much of what we use is designed for obsolescence, so these densely-toxic products we call computers last maybe 2-5 years and then we buy new ones . . . and throw the old ones “away.” Actually, an amazing number of used computers are warehoused somewhere, which means that we still have a chance to dispose of them properly. But even so, if you go around campus looking inside dumpsters I’ll bet that you can find a computer or two peeking back out at you without wasting too much time!

So, maybe we wash our hands of the problem and have easy consciences because we contract with a company to dispose of our old computers? If that’s the case on your campus, do you know what that company d'es with the machines?

An investigative study in 2002 reported on recycling activities at a small village in China, where “recycled” computers from the US (including, among others, from the LA Unified School District and the State of Kentucky Education Department) were torn apart by villagers to retrieve the most valuable components.

Workers there, who make about $1.50 each day, have to import their drinking and cooking water from more than 15 miles away because the side effects of their work have poisoned the earth and the water around the village. For example, to obtain the metal from inside the wires, villagers burn the wires all night long and retrieve the metal from the toxic ash – which lies and blows around the village in piles, among which children play all day long.

Some one in California and in Kentucky thought they were doing the right thing in doing the modern version of throwing something “away,” which is sending it to recycling. Good attitude; unfortunate reliance on a company with poor ethics.

Upstream Waste

Even the most conscientious among us, however, rarely think about what gets thrown “away” in the process of manufacturing our computers. A study at the United Nations University in Tokyo found that an astonishing 500 pounds of fossil fuel, fifty pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water are used to make a typical desktop computer. Even just that tiny little chip, which you can hold on your fingertip is made by consuming 75 pounds of stuff that might get thrown “away.”

That university is, by the way, doing some incredibly interesting work in this field. A more recent study it found that:

“two wireless technologies have dramatically lower environmental impacts than some of the conventional technologies they can replace. The analysis focused on the environmental effects created during the production, use, and disposal of each alternative. First, reading newspaper content received wirelessly on a personal digital assistant (PDA) was compared to the traditional way of reading a newspaper. The PDA method resulted in the release 25 to thousands of times less CO2, NOx, and Sox, which highlights dramatic opportunities to reduce environmental impacts by shifting other paper-based communications to electronic media. The second comparison found that wireless teleconferencing results in 1-3 orders of magnitude lower CO2, NOx, and SO2 emissions than business travel, highlighting an opportunity for organizations to reduce their environmental footprint.”

This kind of research is welcome and necessary. It helps us to get where we eventually have to get if we don’t want to poison the biosphere. And we don’t want to do that. As my good friend Anthony D. Cortese of Second Nature constantly reminds me: No matter how “far from nature” we think we live our daily lives, we are still within that biosphere. And our concern for the biosphere is and should be self-interested. After every major extinction we can find in the fossil record, the biosphere and some form of life continues, just not what was there before. In this case, that could include us.

Cradle to Cradle (C2C): It’s a Design Problem

William McDonough is probably the lead proponent in making the case that our industrial system can be redesigned to be a creator of goods and services that we want, “while generating ecological, social and economic value.” His book, which is printed on “treeless” paper that is manufactured to be part of a closed loop process that re-uses its chemical content over and over again, is called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

He is making an impact on the design and manufacturing worlds. Here is an interesting article about how a model residence was designed using C2C principles by a team of seven architects and planners, many of whom were SCUP members.

He points out, convincingly, that what we now see playing out in the news media as an inevitable conflict between the environment and industry need not be so. The system that provides us consumer goods in 2005 is “an outgrowth of purely opportunistic design,” with tragic and unintended consequences.”

So, while you are reading this take a good look at your computer and imagine a gigantic funnel above it, holding more than a ton of water, metals, and other chemicals. At the top of that funnel are environmental impacts from poking around the earth collecting raw materials from the environment. Balancing the funnel by its tip is your tiny, high-powered machine. Below it is another funnel, this one with the tip up, on which your computer balances. The open (bottom) end of that funnel is waste. Wouldn’t it be nice if that “waste,” instead of being thrown “away” entered a pipeline to return it to the wide open end of the top funnel?

In the IT world, we are a little bit closer to achieving cradle to cradle, if only because the fact that our machines are so dense with valuable chemicals and metals means that it’s more worthwhile spending the time to figure out how to not waste anything in the process.

But industry needs a nudge once in a while, and the more of us who think about these things, and act on them when we can, the better off our great-great-grandkids are going to be.

P.S. Join a wide mix of people somewhere on your campus, or a nearby one, on October 26 when large groups of people from faculty, staff, and students – and across departments and disciplines, will join each other on Campus Sustainability Day III to connect with the fast-growing number of folks in academia who want our campuses to be models of learning about and operating by sustainability principles. Here's a list of campuses currently signed up.

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