Towards Circularity: Intro: Waste | Not
Stuff we buy. Stuff we throw away.
In the U.S., consumers purchase over 34 million new TVs every year, 17 million new computer monitors and 43 million new laptops. What happens when we are finished using them? Mobile phones may disappear into a desk drawer or become your toddler’s new favorite toy. Some communities have electronics recycling options, but many Americans are still confused on how to recycle their devices, despite years of efforts to create cost effective ways to collect, repurpose and safely recycle these products.
Within the last decade, while cathode ray tube TVs became obsolete, efficient LED lights replaced mercury-filled cold compact fluorescent lights, and integrated circuits became microscopic, the narrative of how non-industrialized countries manage used electronics hasn’t really changed. Concern over products being exported to places that don’t have the infrastructure to safely take apart and recycle electronics remains paramount. Many domestic collection programs pledge not to export used products overseas and policy makers around the world are trying to figure out new business models to safely recycle electronics. Demand for scrap is high in these places because the material is valued.
Enter plastics. A growing awareness of ocean plastics has ignited brands, governments, and consumers to take action on improving recycling. This attention, especially on the churn of single use plastics, brings home the need to re-think the way we make and consume things. Most of the ocean-bound plastics originate in South and Southeast Asia. There, as with e-waste, managing plastics requires rethinking relationships with informal and formal workers and creating more transparency and accountability in collecting material.
Efforts over the coming years will test of whether we can re-imagine how to capture and recycle materials and whether we need to use certain materials, like plastic packaging, at all. We can begin to imagine a more ‘circular economy,’ which, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, designs out waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems.
Ultimately, though, waste management systems involve people. Those featured in the following photo essays play a role, some more visible than others, in how stuff gets repurposed. My aim in photographing them was to shed more light on what they do so that we can see them as integral to whatever new solutions take shape.