Sustainable Electronics

How can the longevity of technological devices at a university be achieved?

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The Problems of Electronic Waste

Electronic devices have changed our lives drastically and the total consumption of different electronics has been steadily growing over the last decades, as does the electronic waste.

While dead or unwanted electronics can be given back to the manufacturer, many devices still end up in unofficial recycling facilities or are dumped into nature.

Much like the trade of functional electronics, a large market has evolved around dead electronic parts, which usually are shipped off to the cheapest possible location to salvage valuable resources from it.

This is why electronics often end up in Sub-Saharan Countries of Africa, like Ghana or Nigeria, where electric devices are burned without safety equipment to get to certain metals, like copper. During those processes, the environment is damaged and often totally destroyed near larger recycling facilities, because of fires, toxic waste and toxic air.

However, electronic products usually have a negative impact on humans and the environment even before they end up as e-waste. Much like in the unofficial recycling industry, minerals like gold or coltan are also needed to produce electronic devices. The exploitation of these minerals in politically unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in slavery and brutal working conditions, as well as environmental pollution through large mining activities and mercury pollution to clean the gold.

Today there are only a few sustainable sources of minerals for phones, like Fairtrade gold, while the majority of phones, computers, screens, refrigerators or radios are built using conventional materials. The latter rely on environmental destruction during the sourcing of minerals, bad working conditions during the construction to keep cost down and finally the cheap disposal of old hardware, as recycling with European Standards does not provide enough profit. 

Circular Economy

One approach of tackling those linear consumption patterns is the idea of a circular economy. This is an industrial system which is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It “aims to maximize the usefulness of products, components and materials across the entire lifecycle” (Reuter et al. 2018, p. 68).

Instead of following the ‘end-of-life’ concept it focuses on restoration (including reuse) and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and within this the business model. All of that is based on the use of renewable energies and the elimination of toxic chemicals during the use. It therefore benefits not only the environment but also the economy and society.

The idea of the circular economy here is to replace the concept of a consumer with that of a user which means that durable products should not be bought-used-disposed anymore but leased, rented or shared whenever possible. The idea is to implement functional services so that retailers act as service providers who do not sell their products but their use, the development of take-back systems, and the design of product and business models which consider durable products and facilitate refurbishment.

Repair Cafés

Repair Cafés are places people can come to with their broken products and get help at fixing them for free. They do not only help to reduce electronic waste; they are also teaching consumers about their products and establish a deeper connection between them. There are already hundreds of repair cafés in Germany and several concepts existing in Lüneburg as well.

However, we think that the opening of a repair café at the Leuphana campus would attract considerable interest. There is already a large group of curious students who are aware of sustainability which could be brought together with existing structures.

Existing Initiatives in Lüneburg

If you are interested in participating in repairing devices by yourself, there are already several opportunities in Lüneburg.

On the one hand there are “classic” repair cafés:

Reparaturcafé Lüneburg
Haagestraße 4, 21335 Lüneburg
VHS - Volkshochschule, Eingangsbereich
Deutschland
Reparatur Café Adendorf
Bültenweg 18, 21365 Adendorf
Deutschland

For specific dates and further information, you can check the following website: https://www.reparatur-initiativen.de/

Oh the other hand, there is the FabLab Lüneburg, which is not a repair café but a creative place for different occasions. However, they have expertise in 3D printing which might help you with your repair project: https://www.fablab-lueneburg.org/

How could a specific concept appealing to students look like?

Considering all the resources available in Lüneburg, it might be useful to unite them for a repair event at the Leuphana campus. We think that there would be quite some demand from the student side and synergies with existing initiatives and structures could be used. It is also in line with the guiding principles of the university in terms of sustainability. The event could be complemented with the sharing of used electronic products and accessories.

This might be useful because some students might need accessories like cables or monitors after moving out from their parents. Maybe this topic of repairing could even fit into the responsibility module of the Leuphana semester.

Societal Implications

The repair café serves as an institution to reduce consumption of electronic devices. Since it is most sustainable to prolong the life cycle of an electronic device, repairing it is the optimal option. Additionally, corresponding with experts at a repair café guarantees the closest loop within the circular economy. Furthermore, the repair café is a place of social learning. People come together and exchange expertise; but also events can be planned about (non-)wastefulness, working conditions of people mining rare minerals, etc. Therefore, this educational space grants practical knowledge on the one hand, and political education on the other hand. Connected to this, repairing can be seen as an act of protest since we live in a throw-away culture. Repairing is a movement against this wasteful culture and aims at relearning the skill of maintenance. It is often connected to cultural criticism of society neither treating their electronic devices carefully nor knowing the implications of their consumption.

This is also embedded in the current consumer society we are living in. The consumer is often detached from most production steps (also due to opacity) and unable to prolong the consumption (i.e. repair). Gaining repairing skills means a development of “consumer competence”, engaging the consumers to see themselves not merely as someone acquiring services in all regards.

All in all, the repair café is a place where people can educate themselves about political, social and ecological topics and also ensure a responsible treatment of defect electronic devices, and by that making it most sustainable since there are no fair and sustainable options for many electronic devices yet.