Modern electronic devices are probably the best examples of stuff that has great environmental costs but also huge personal and societal benefits. They also represent the biggest differences between the more sustainable society of the past and the society of the future.
Somehow, we need to incorporate the benefits, while reducing the environmental costs, because we can't afford to either eliminate these extraordinary devices—or to continue creating them as they are now.
This is a dilemma. Even as we appreciate the creativity and genius that has brought people all over the world together through these amazing technologies, they come at a high cost to the environment and to the people who make them. These costs are not inevitable, though, and responsible design and policies could properly value people's labor and the environment.
What we do not do is run right out and purchase the latest and greatest; we're generally a little behind in technology.
This is one of those things I feel helpless as an individual to correct (though we try to deal responsibly with e-waste) and, rightly or wrongly, choose to have in our lives anyway. At the same time, though, we make our political choices based on changing these exploitative systems. Our own personal "green" purchasing will not make a dent in these issues; they're policy questions for the world to address.
Some of our electronic stuff
I admit our iMacs must be problematic environmentally, but at the same time I put this in the category of "good stuff." They benefit our lives enormously, enabling us to participate in and contribute to the world. All of my work is done on my computer, and having a well-designed computer and software makes it possible.
Although I generally resist the temptation to have the newest and greatest electronic devices, I fail a little with computers. Although I don't have the most powerful computers or the newest, I do generally have the high-end of the home office kind of computer, and have generally bought new ones every three or four years, not because they no longer worked, but because they weren't able to handle new software (at least with the speed I desire.)
Computers seem to be reaching a stage, though, where they don't get outdated as quickly, as least for home office computers. There's a limited amount of sophistication that our basic software tools need, and I think we may have reached it. Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, my photography software (Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS6) have all the functionality I need. My only other software is Dreamweaver CS6, and that has more than enough capabilities I require. Finally, I may actually be at a point where my software isn't going to outgrow my computer! (And John's computer needs are even more basic.)
I've resisted getting an iPad, even though it would be nice. It still falls into the category of "want" not "need," and I expect it will stay there for a good long time.
My Nikon D40 camera
Even though my camera feels not much different from cameras of the past, it's essentially an electronic device, and so has the same issues of other electronics. And the same advantages.
Trying not to acquire more stuff is difficult with photography. There's no substitute for having the right equipment and having well-made equipment. I have a low-end model of the higher-end kind of camera a range of three lenses. Same with the tripod.
I hope and expect that with good care this equipment will last a while, but when the time comes to upgrade (as my photography skills and aspirations increase), this equipment will probably be sellable.
Our television "needs" are extremely modest since we rarely watch TV except for some of John's sports shows. Our current TV is about ten years old.
I can't imagine we'll ever need another television. If it breaks, we have no reason to replace it since we can watch things on the computer.
It used to be that telephones were simple to use—just dial the number and someone answered. Now they've become complicated and I suppose essential to everyday life. And who can avoid having one since there are so few pay phones left?
So far, we still have a land line and have dumb phones just to take places for emergencies.
This is another device that has transformed the world, mostly in a positive way, but also creating a huge environmental disaster as people keep getting new phones. Is it really necessary to keep trading up when the current phone still works?
I was astonished, for example, to see reports that in the first 24 hours after the iPhone 5 was announced, there were already 2 million orders. It's not possible that all of these people's old phones suddenly had stopped working or were no longer meeting their needs.t. What happens to all these old phones?
iPods have changed our lives. We can listen to a huge variety of podcasts while we're cooking, doing the dishes, and walking. We even use our iPods when we're getting to sleep. We can listen to what we want when we want. The Diane Rehm Show and The People's Pharmacy are two of our favorites!
DVD players etc.
We have bought VCRs that now sit—in perfect working order— but unused. We then bought DVD players. We even bought a recorder, but haven't used it as much, partly because it's so much more difficult than our old VCR where we could just press a few buttons, but also because we rarely watch TV anymore. A wide array of things are far more interesting than the typical TV show. (Although we do watch Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart on the computer sometimes.)
Dealing with our e-waste
There are catastrophic problems with our country's e-waste, both for our country and especially for the developing world where we dump them.
I imagine we've contributed our fair share, even though we aren't always buying the "latest and greatest" or replacing our cell phones all the time. We also try to take good care of things so they last. This doesn't take care of the enormous amount of resources used to manufacture these items, but I don't know what I can do about that.
When we do dispose of electronics, we have tried to find a legitimate place for them, even if we have to pay a fee. The bigger problem, though, is that some things still have a useful life, such as old computers—useful, that is, for someone with more modest computing needs than I have. How to find these people, though?
Extended Producer Responsibility
The good news is that NYS recently passed an Extended Producer Responsibility Law making e-waste a free item to recycle if the items are taken back through a manufacturer designated program. We haven't yet figured out how this will apply to our current electronics, but we assume that electronics we buy from now on will be able to be recycled. I hope this encourages manufacturers to design products in a way that makes at least some of them easy to recycle and recover materials since it will be in their own best interest.
I assume that if NYS requires this, it will have ramifications beyond NYS. If companies start designing better products to meet the NYS laws, they'll become available elsewhere, too.
Even rechargeable batteries eventually need to be recycled
We've been trying to use rechargeable batteries as much as possible.
When batteries are dead, though, it's easy here in Onondaga County to recycle them. A number of locations will accept batteries for recycling. For us, it's easiest to take them to Wegmans when we get our groceries. They have a number of boxes, one for each kind of battery. (We assume that after that, they're dealt with in a responsible manner, but we have no control over that as individuals.)
We're fortunate to have a way to easily recycle our batteries of all kinds. We simply take them to our local grocery store, which has three separate boxes for alkaline, button, and rechargeable batteries.
Our recycling agency, OCRRA, reports that Onondaga County recycles more batteries than communities two or three times our size!
Still, though, we try to avoid having everyday products that require batteries. That's one reason I prefer my Nikon camera to my old Canon PowerShot. The PowerShot really eats up batteries, whereas the Nikon's special batteries are rechargeable.