Each year, technology companies try to outdo themselves by making a thinner, sleeker product. But there's a dark side to the "thinner is better" mantra, and it has nothing to do with how bendy your phone is: Our svelte gadgets are a nightmare to recycle.
Americans discarded roughly 310 million computers, monitors, TVs, and mobile phones in 2010—by tossing them right in the trash. According to Sara Behdad, a product design analyst at the University of Buffalo, irresponsible e-waste disposal is a trend that may worsen in the coming years if our penchant for paper-thin tech endures.
"My question is, how can we make the whole system of e-waste recovery profitable?" Behdad, who studies the life cycles of our tech products, told me. "At some point, I noticed that we needed to go back to the origin—product design."
Behdad is discovering that slimmer and more compact electronics are not only harder to take apart for refurbishment or recycling, but American consumers are, it seems, less willing to part with them.
There's no denying that America has an e-waste problem. A 2010 EPA report revealed that Americans discarded a whopping 150 thousand computers and 416 thousand mobile phones every day. Our planet's growing mountains of e-waste are leaching heavy metals—including cadmium, lead, and mercury—into soil and waterways, poisoning humans and the environment alike.
Many of these discarded devices can not only be resold or recycled, manufacturers stand to recover precious resources by doing so. So, what gives, America?
Behdad, who has been studying the problem of e-waste for years, finds that design trends can play a major role. One conspicuous issue is that thinner tablets and phones with fewer components are harder to take apart, increasing the cost of refurbishment and recycling: "Disassembly [of thinner products] usually cannot be done automatically," Behdad said. "If you want to recover components, you have to use manual labor."
Often, that labor comes on the cheap by exporting our old tech to Asia. But for manufacturers concerned primarily with the bottom line, some products are just not worth cracking open, period. In which case, the gadget will probably still end up abroad—but in a towering pile of trash rather than a recycle plant.
When it comes to e-waste recycling, there's also a lurking problem on the consumer end: It's called hoarding. If you don't have a stash of old cell phones, I'd say you're either lying or vastly more responsible than the average American.
Turns out, design may influence our propensity to save our gadgets of yore, as well. We may chuckle fondly over the sentimental value of our 2000s-era cell phone graveyards, but according to Behdad, there's another reason we hoard electronic artifacts: Data privacy.
"People often don't return their old cell phones because their data is on them," Behdad told me. "We thought; if you have two different designs, one with removable memory and one without, how would this affect the consumer's likelihood to return the product?"
In ongoing research, Behdad is finding that when she compares two similar tech products—say, one smartphone with a removable memory card and one without—the one lacking physically detachable data storage tends to be hoarded for longer.
To economists, this is called irrational behavior, but apparently, many of us take more comfort in the physical act of yanking an honest-to-god cartridge from the back of an old phone than watching a 19-year-old store employee wipe our data for us.
Without improved recycle rates, it's possible that electronic devices may one day become too expensive for the average consumer. If product design changes help obviate this problem, who knows—maybe a Star Trek-like, retro-future of boxier, bulkier tech awaits us.
Fashion, after all, is subjective—a worldwide lithium shortage won't be.