While green energy solutions often rely on new technologies, MIT students who took the STS.032 (Energy, Environment, and Society) class in the fall of 2020 found that even many promising innovations have a downside – electronic waste (E-Schrott ).
“We use energy technologies that are well suited to our needs now, but we don’t think about what will happen 30 years in the future,” says Jemma Schroder, a freshman in class who learned the waste of solar panels for example are on the rise. The International Renewable Energy Agency has forecast that, given the current rate of accumulation, the world will have accumulated 78 million tons of such waste by 2050.
“We’re trying to dig ourselves out of the pit, but we’re just digging another pit,” says Schroder. “If you really want sustainability, you have to think about all aspects of the problem.”
Creating context for energy and sustainability issues is the main goal of STS.032, an elective for the minor in energy sciences. “I understand the necessity that we need energy, we need electronic goods, but the environment is a minor matter. That’s a big mistake, ”says Professor Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga of the Science, Technology, and Society program who teaches the class.
“We can’t just focus on happy stories about technology anymore,” said Mavhunga, who serves on the Energy Minor Oversight Committee, a subcommittee of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Energy Education Task Force. “I try to bring energy into everyday life and point out problems that people grapple with.”
To this end, Mavhunga identifies a specific energy challenge each year and encourages students to address it in STS.032. “It’s a very problem-centered approach to the energy curriculum,” he says.
During the fall semester 2020, Mavhunga students spent eight weeks exploring the global landscape of energy and electronic waste, including discarded cell phones and computers, but also discarded parts for solar panels. Topics covered ranged from the interplay of energy, race, inequality, poverty and pollution in the United States to dumping and innovative recycling of e-waste in Africa.
“We’re going on a world tour and looking at how things are made, how they travel around the world illegally,” says Mavhunga, noting that many discarded electronics – and the pollutants associated with them – end up in the global south. “At the design level, there is this planned obsolescence,” he adds. “And the question of what to do with the waste wasn’t really discussed.”
Students in STS.032 say they were shocked to learn that many solar panels are already out of date and that designers have not planned well to reuse or recycle at the end of their life. “Solar modules only last 20 or 30 years, what happens to them when they no longer work is a problem,” says Schroder. “Many cannot be recycled, or they can be, but it is too expensive to do. So in the end, people illegally ship them to sit in a garbage dump. “
“It never occurred to me that electronic waste, especially solar waste, is such a big topic,” says senior Julian Dubransky, who is studying humanities and engineering. “I would argue that it is one of the most important things I learned at MIT.”
STS.032 requires two individual work and culminates in a final group work, which in this term focuses on characterizing the problems in connection with solar and electronic waste and suggesting solutions.
In their thesis, students identified some of the dangers of electronic waste, including harmful chemicals like lead, cadmium, and other known carcinogens that can get into the soil and contaminate water supplies. “In East African garbage dumps, acids and chemicals from solar panels, lead-acid batteries and lithium batteries are usually dumped directly into the ground so that the metal components can be melted down and sold on,” the students write.
It’s also common to burn the plastic off wires to reclaim valuable copper, though the process creates toxic fumes, Schroder says. “Dealing with these pollutants is not a priority for people, even though they get into land and water and worsen everyone’s health,” she says, because the waste is processed in areas where livelihood is a priority.
Students conclude that tackling the e-waste problem requires greater public awareness of the impact that improperly disposed of waste has on the environment and human health. “Technical waste is a huge form of waste that we don’t really talk about or see,” says Schroder.
“You have to uncover these problems and make people aware of them,” says Dubransky, adding that the challenge of handling electronic waste depends more on will than on the path. “There is no such thing as a real waste product when you can figure out how to reuse or recycle it.”
To underline this point, STS.032 provided students with several examples of innovative recycling efforts, ranging from simply using dirt-filled water bottles as building blocks to developing new electronics from the old ones. “I don’t know what I would do if someone gave me a bunch of old electronics, but they made all of these amazing machines, even 3D printers, out of recycled technology,” says Schroder, referring to entrepreneurs across the continent , who built up companies from electronic waste deposited in Africa (WoeLab in Togo is an example). “It’s really inspiring.”
It is important to examine what different communities are doing with waste because it gives students the opportunity to see the problem from a new perspective, explains Mavhunga. “Different places in the world are interconnected and treat the same problems in different ways,” he says. “Knowledge doesn’t just come from universities and books. Knowledge can also come from local people. “
Students in STS.032 were able to identify some major e-waste handling challenges – particularly the global problem of inconsistent regulation – but they also had personal lessons from class.
For example, Schroder says she won’t be upgrading her phone anytime soon. Because now that she understands the problem of electronic waste, she wants to do something about it.
“When you see a coal factory or a coal burner, you see the fumes rise,” she notes. “What you don’t see is the phone, which you break and just throw away – you don’t see what happens to it. The lack of awareness of what is happening to these devices is a really big problem. “
Students hope that awareness will drive demand for solutions such as: “A lack of awareness is probably the biggest problem we have with the e-waste problem. If we are aware that there is a problem, solutions can flow in, ”says Dubransky.
Mavhunga hopes that STS.032 can help MIT students advance such solutions. “In places like MIT, this should be done exactly because we have the engineers here,” he says. “We need more people at the table who create from an ethical, ecological and social point of view.”