E-houses without doors: the circular economy and cargoes of e waste

Concealed within their familiar glossy casings is an intricate network of precious metals, rare earth elements, minerals, finite resources, arsenic and mercury. The most positive interpretations of contemporary technological forms imbue them with embryonic potential capable of giving life to new ways of thinking, creating new forms of knowledge, expanding human capabilities and leading us into the future.

These impenetrable shells shield silent signals that flow between up to 75 of the 83 stable (non-radioactive) elements of the periodic table. A meeting place for micro-electronic components of a global identity yet condensed and miniaturised to fit neatly within the palm of a hand:

copper from Chile, silver from Mexico, platinum and palladium from South Africa and Russia, tantalum from central Africa or Brazil, lithium from Argentina, cobalt from the Congo or Zambia, pure graphite from India, sylvite from Canada, Russia or Belarus, iridium from South Korea, tin derived from cassiterite from Indonesia or Peru, tantalum from Congo, Rwanda and Brazil, and many more.

After being in the consumer’s possession for two years on average, the mobile device is set sail on a new journey. Unwanted and discarded, these handheld icons of modernisation culminate in 352,474 metric tonnes of hazardous waste: the UK is the biggest exporter of illegal e-waste in Europe. Examining the flows of these exports speaks volumes about the systemic imperialism of this industry: from west to east, and north to south, with Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan receiving the bulk of this.

The circular economy is a solution to reduce waste, a preferable system in which the re-use and recycling of material products puts an end to linear thinking and its culture of the ‘single use’ disposable. In the case of e-waste, the amount of tiny elements condensed into a similarly small space complicates its safe recycling. Manually burning the hardware is a common yet highly toxic method of trying to re-extract the metals and attempting to separate the fused components. Instead of repairing and recycling the materials, the waste contributes more environmental and social damage than any potential benefit. Not so circular after all.

At the consumption stage, we hold smart devices close to our faces, pressed against our skin, slept with beneath our pillows, but when broken down and fragmented these same devices become intensely toxic. A toxicity that the consumer is largely distanced from, yet that confronts those tasked with the arduous process of recycling.

All the while, another cycle overlaps; the food chain. Free-range chickens that also forage amongst the debris provide a food source for the 80,000 people living in and around one of the largest e-waste dumping sites, Agbogbloshie (Accra, Ghana). The shells of their eggs don’t hold the same impermeable quality as the shells of our electronic devices. A single egg produced by these chickens contains 220 times the safe limit of chlorinated dioxins (as defined by European Food Safety Authority guidelines).

These small ‘houses without doors’ have been broken into by a cabal of consumers eager for the next model of smartphone, tech manufacturers designing with planned obsolescence, and unethical disposal companies shipping illegal hazardous waste under the pre-text of recycling (I wish I knew the author of the metaphor, but the closest I can find is that it features in Brian Swann’s ‘The House with No Door: African Riddle-Poems).

A fusing of animal and electronic technology, the egg and the e-, these wandering land-based birds become cyborgs.

(Extra note: a nod to how food is labelled to reflect its place of exportation, the stickers on the crates also include a number beginning with 8 that indicates a food item has been genetically modified).