It may seem innocuous, wanting new things and purchasing trinkets to make your life easier, but there is a sinister price we pay to live in this age of technology.
Much of what makes up the devices we use and love is a volatile mixed bag of some of the earth’s most dangerous substances. Dangerous because of what they can do to our environment, our bodies, and to the political forces that control those substances.
Why recycling won’t save our planet
From grade school we learn about the three Rs and how they can help preserve the environment, but what isn’t taught is the infrastructure necessary to make those Rs robust enough to really change anything. Currently, that infrastructure is failing or simply non-existent. When it comes to the manufacturing of products we consume, the best infrastructure would be the consumer paying for recycling or sustainably sourced manufacturing materials. If that were the case, then the high cost associated with reclaiming value from the inevitable waste stream of our consumption would be taken care of up front—the costs would be internal to the process.
Sadly, the reason recycling will never work in this economy is because the environmental costs that come with modern manufacturing are all externalized. In other words, the cost for being a good steward falls on someone else downstream in the process. When that happens, the price to do it right is often too high.
Had that cost been internal to the price of the product we consume, however, then the onus to recycle would be on the manufacturer while also being financially supported by all the consumers (rather than the few who want to be good stewards of their possessions). By internalizing the cost of recycling, all of the three Rs can be effective enough to turn our environment around.
How internal costs make the difference
It’s true that mining minerals for electronics manufacturing is unleashing a world of evils on our planet. But, had the companies who benefited from the Bunker Hill mine in Idaho rolled the cost of being sustainable into their products in the first place, the story today would be much different.
With internalized costs, the mine would have had the support it needed to reduce the environmental damage it would eventually do—to be managed properly. And now, as the EPA is desperate to reopen the mine, internalized costs would allow the site to be set up correctly.
There is another way internalizing costs can help. It has to do with our consumption rate as Americans. This need to reopen the Superfund mine in Idaho is fueled directly by our wanton need to consume, so making consumers pay for the cost to recycle these products upfront would undoubtedly curb at least some of that need. And, for when we purchase those items, the internal cost would either make us want to prolong the life of those devices, or at least treat them more sustainably knowing the recycling of them has been paid for.
The sick irony of the current system
Not only does the lack of infrastructure undermine recycling, but internalizing costs for recycling and sustainably sourcing materials is a must the farther down this rabbit hole of climate change and environmental degradation we go. If we empower recycling to have the impact that it should, the ramifications would be instrumental in shifting the ecology toward healthy.
In light of this, the ridiculousness of what we do today is made only more poignant. Opening a superfund site? Why do we need another toxic mine when we are sending just as much of the already refined minerals overseas or to the dump? If we had internalized the costs of those products, the system would be in place to capture back the lion’s share of minerals from existing products. And without thinking of value, our country is sending shiploads of retired devices overseas. Devices that could be reused, resold, or donated.
But there is stop-gap value in Reuse
This kind of wastefulness shows how backwards we are as a consumptive society. Even in the walls of “civilized” business, this wastefulness persists; IT assets being sent to the shredder while more money is spent on brand new devices. Reuse, on the other hand, flies in the face of this consumerism. And it does so with proven results.
Conscientious reuse of electronic devices is better for the environment, better for business, and better for the bottom line because it takes into account the true value of the product—internalizing the costs on the back end. By reusing devices, or refurbishing them for reuse by someone else, the potential of that device is extended to the new user, eliminating the need to purchase new (externalized cost) devices.
So, perhaps you’re wondering as I am: should the mine be reopened? In light of this post, and the concept of internalizing costs for conscientious stewardship, it all depends on the how the company will go into this mine. Will they operate it responsibly? Can they internalize the cost to keep it safe and properly managed? If so, then the Bunker Hill mine is a better answer for tech manufacturers than conflict mines in the Congo.
Regardless of whether or not the EPA is successful at reopening the superfund site, there is one truth that each of us can think on. That the environmental cost of any mine is still a balance that our planet is having to carry. After all, to all of those who used Bunker Hill’s zinc and silver: you didn’t pay enough for it.