The Troubling Problem of E-Waste

Why regenerative design is needed now more than ever

The Troubling Problem of E-Waste
Photo by John Cameron / Unsplash

Over the holidays I read a disturbing bit of news. In October 2025, Microsoft will end free support for its Windows 10 operating system. This will force many users to upgrade but they’ll run into a big problem. Many computers running Windows 10 don’t have the right hardware specifications to upgrade to Windows 11.

Analysts believe up to 240 million computers will be discarded because of this hardware mismatch. They will be thrown away and become a pile of e-waste that could reach the moon.

If these were all stacked laptops, stacked on top of each other, they would form a stack 600 km above the Moon.
Ending support for Windows 10 could send 240 million computers to the landfill: a stack of that many laptops would end up 600 km higher than the moon
Analysts at Canalys estimate that 240 million PCs could end up in the scrap heap after October 2025, when Microsoft ends free support for Windows 10. Microsoft will provide paid support until October 2028, but it’s likely that the upgrade will cost less. Generated by Dall-E neural networkMany Window…

I’m not sure if that claim is true or not, but if 10% of those computers are discarded it’ll create a massive e-waste heap by itself, and that’s the problem.

E-waste is a big problem in our modern society. It’s not just limited to computers but to toys, lamps, microwaves, and just about anything with a motherboard.

With our constant upgrade cycle that corporations have us hooked on, we just buy the new gadget or household item and throw away the old one in the trash. We never think about where our old Motorola Razr phone or microwave went, myself included.

The story of film vs digital cameras

I’m a hobbyist photographer who holds onto his cameras till they fall apart and break. As a hobbyist, I have a hard time spending money on the latest camera because it’s expensive. When I bought my first “real” camera in 1994, it was a film camera.

Digital cameras weren’t mainstream yet and companies like Kodak and Fujifilm were still innovating with different film stock. You didn’t need to new camera to shoot a different type of film, you just needed to load a different film. Granted, by the time I bought my film cameras the generic point-and-shoot cameras had things like auto-focus and better exposure handling.

Then sometime in 2003, digital took the world by storm. All my photography friends began to trade in or sell their film cameras for the first digital SLRs. Suddenly, all these high-end film cameras flooded the market and so many great cameras and lenses were at rock bottom prices.

Film manufacturers got slammed. Overnight the demand for film dropped causing Kodak to declare bankruptcy in January 2012. Over the next few years, digital cameras in various forms from compact point to shoots, to digital SLRs, to the iPhone dominated the market.

Then, every year after, camera companies hawked their latest upgrades. One year it was 1080 videos, the next year it was focus peaking, and after that, it was better battery design.

Camera companies found a way to keep sales going every year and it was through an upgrade cycle. What would happen to your old digital camera? Some would be sold off while they still had some value but many ended up in the garbage or a shoebox under your bed.

Regenerative design

Corporations have us hooked on this constant upgrade cycle. They’ve managed to scare us into the fear of missing out (FOMO); it’s cool to stay current. This FOMO works well for companies because it creates a constant demand for new products and growing revenues for shareholders.

No one cares about what happens to the old products, that’s someone else’s problem - that’s your problem, and it highlights the dark side of Capitalism. Corporations only care about the revenues but not the consequences of creating those revenues.

Most consumers are conditioned not to think about e-waste consequences because throwing things away has become tidy. We just put it in the trash bin and it goes away. We never think about where it ends up.

What if we start to think about where it ends up and force corporations to start designing their latest gadgets with longevity in mind that doesn’t hurt their sales revenues? What if we changed the narrative on e-waste?

Can it be done?

In mid-2023 I read the book “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth. A wonderful book that comes up with a new economic model for a new world that seeks to balance the environment, social justice, and much more, it introduced me to a term called "regenerative design".

Regenerative design is an approach to designing systems or solutions that aims to work with or mimic natural ecosystem processes for returning energy from less usable to more usable forms. Regenerative design uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. Regenerative design is an active topic of discussion in engineering, landscape design, food systems, and community development.

The idea is rather simple, instead of throwing away that iPhone or dSLR, you could remove components of it and reuse them elsewhere. Those motherboards on those electronic devices are far more powerful than the computer that was used to send astronauts to the moon, so let’s reuse that computing power elsewhere.

Instead of throwing away millions of Windows 10 computers, let’s strip off that operating system for one that can handle the hardware and connect them to a computing grid.

Let’s design a digital camera that can be modular and swap out the onboard computer when an upgrade comes. Then take the old motherboard and pop it into the same computing grid above.

There are many opportunities here if corporations supported a level of interoperability but that won’t happen until they’re forced to. Governments around the world will have to create legislation and a consortium to establish the design criteria as well as the end goal for older electronics.

Policy will be needed to take into account what happens to our electronic (and non-electronic) products as the go from cradle to grave to rebirth again.

Will technology save the day

Many leaders and talking heads are excited about carbon capture technology. They’re banking on that technology to save the day when it comes to fighting our climate crisis. I say it's deluded and dangerous thinking.

We can’t be led into a false sense of security believing that 10 lbs of shit being shoveled into a 5 lb sack is going to work because technology will somehow make the shit sack bigger. We’re facing a hard limit with respect to our planet and no amount of human ingenuity will solve this problem.

The same goes for e-waste, we can’t continue to consume resources to build new gadgets when we’re drowning in last year’s models. The solution is simple, we have to reuse. We have to attack this problem in two ways.

First, we have to design around the entire lifecycle. Can we design and build a new product that can be stripped down and reused in some other product?

I’d love to see companies Apple and Microsoft create regenerative design departments that will advise customers, hackers, and regenerative engineers/designers how to reuse their old products. A whole new regenerative economy can be born from thinking about what happens at the end-of-life of these products, if we’re creative enough.

Second, we need smart engineers and designers to think about how we can reuse the e-waste we’ve already produced. Granted, some of them can’t be recovered because it’s in a landfill but what about that iPhone 11 you have sitting in your desk? How can you use that old laptop that’s sitting in your closet?

End notes

The screen on my RicohGRD is cracked. It’s showing signs of wear and tear. It’s old and several generations behind the latest RicohGRD, but I don’t care. I never chased the latest camera because money is tight and the technology is better now than film cameras. Why upgrade all the time?

I recently found my Motorola Razr phone in a box in the basement. My first Lenovo laptop is sitting in my office closet. They’re taking up space and I’m wondering what to do with them. I can’t bring myself to throw them away because I believe that they are valuable in some way; I just haven’t figured out what to do with them.

I'd love to find a way to reuse them but it’s beyond my skill at the moment. I believe that’s how we all feel right now, a bit hopeless, but I have faith. I have faith that we, as a collective society, will wake up one day surrounded by all our gadgets and say, “What the Fuck!” Only then can we start the journey of turning our e-waste into e-regeneration.

Where do we start? At the beginning. Where do we end? At a new beginning.