Nineteen-year-old artist from Zimbabwe, Zayd Menk, has been contacted by Hewlett Packard to showcase his skill at seeing value in the raw materials of electronic devices. In other words: the circuit boards, copper wires, and clicking switches that make magic for your boardroom, classroom, or bedroom have been transformed into the buildings, bridges, and bell towers of Westminster, England. But what is really going on with this?
As with any business move, money has to be a motivator. So, for HP to commission this teenager, there is almost certainly a motivation beyond creating art. Intentionally, HP is sending a message about recycling or reclaiming the materials of the products they create. Whether or not they follow this up with their reclamation processes, remains to be seen.
Unintentionally, however, HP is allowing the average consumer to see this installation as a way of devaluing e-waste. Yes, the waste is being used to create an installation, but what happens after the show? Eventually, there is the likelihood that this piece will be thrown in the bin, meaning it wasn’t really reclaimed after all.
This is not to say the art won't last. Art can be used to great effect to change perceptions and to create a platform for conversations that alter the course of history. All of this is absolutely possible with reclaimed-waste art. But with HP backing this project, our dander is up about another story that seems to be here.
HP’s motivations should be represented by a specific plan for that 80% they hope to reclaim. If it isn’t directed to refurbishment and reuse, then it’s just another OEM’s way of selling more hardware. We can hope that HP will back this teen’s creativity with the sustainable thinking necessary to make real change happen.
The proof is in the reuse
Creating art from e-waste is a self-limiting operation. It can’t account for the veritable ocean of discarded devices that exist, and it’s often only used for a short amount of time. Instead, manufacturers should be looking at the quantity they actually reuse as the test of what impact they are making. Finding other, more widely accessible ways of reusing devices is a worthwhile venture for anyone.
This becomes a conflict of interest for a manufacturer who is driven by sales of new devices. Reuse strikes at the heart of their profitability, which is why it is important to question what HP is really doing here. The specifics of HP’s circular program, for instance, could be tooled to reclaim as much of the e-waste they receive as possible into new devices, rather than recycling a good percentage of the leftovers. That would be a justifiable expense for an OEM.