The Story of Electronics animated film launched today. This is the latest film in the incredible Story of Stuff series (aka Cliff Notes for the armchair environmentalist), which includes the Story of Cosmetics, the Story of Cap and Trade, and the Story of Bottled Water. I talked to Barbara Kyle, the National Coordinator of the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition, about the project and its key messages.
Can you describe how Electronics bubbled up as the next theme to prioritize in the Story of Stuff series? Why this topic, why now?
The Story of Stuff series is all about consuming—all the stuff we buy—and what the real costs are (even if we aren't paying these costs). So the team at Story of Stuff (SOS) was interested in the electronics issue from the beginning, since we are purchasing (and disposing of) electronics at an unbelievable rate. Why now? We are about to enter the holiday buying frenzy that starts around Thanksgiving, when a huge amount of the year's electronics purchases are made.
So the goal is to bring awareness, thereby changing behavior. What is process for creating a piece with that kind of aspiration?
Right. That's a primary goal with all the Story of Stuff (SOS) films: to make people aware of the invisible impacts, so they'll think and act differently. We, the Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETBC), sat down with Annie Leonard, SOS, and the Free Range team to talk through core themes and primary messages, and how they fit with the SOS storyline on product lifecycles. (This is where Free Range is such an important partner in this project—they don't just take a script and animate it. They are part of the development of the whole project.) We brainstormed on some of the key elements, examples, important facts, possible visual images. Really, the hard part is paring it all down to fit in a short film. From there, Annie, her team, and Free Range developed the script, which went through several drafts. Once the script was finalized, and Annie was filmed, the illustration started. To me, this is the magical part—the storytelling is good, but it really comes alive after the animations are added. All the SOS films are viewed online, and there are great resources on the actual site to take action after viewing.
It sounds like a solid iterative process. I'm sure that the SOS team has developed a fairly strong model for moving from interest area to production. The online distribution has enabled the animations to be incredibly viral. The number of views of each film is one measure of the message getting out—how else to you measure success?
I think a big goal is to get a conversation started about these topics, especially with people who haven't been talking about it before. This is where the social media aspects are really helpful. Viewers post it and start talking with their friends, on blogs, as well as talking with the Story of Stuff and the NGOs that partner on these films. These social media tools provide good metrics for measuring how many people are involved in the conversation, joining the groups, making posts, tweeting on specific topics, etc. Since it's all online, it's pretty easy to track where viewers come from. The Story of Stuff team reports that around 40% of the viewers of their films get there via Facebook. And the number of viewers is staggering. The original Story of Stuff film has had 12 million viewers, and still growing. The recent one on bottled water has over a million views.
Another measure is whether some of the people who are talking about it will take action toward solutions. The SOS short films are made in partnership with NGOs working on the issues featured in the films, and the films offer ways for people to get engaged in the issues—from changing their own behavior from stopping buying bottled water, or use a responsible e-waste recycler, to contacting legislators on important policies and telling companies to change what they are doing. That's a really important measure of success—since we won't be successful if we don't make some changes.
So the partner NGO (in this case your organization) creates the support system for viewers who are motivated by the film and want to provide direction for talking action. What sort of programming do you have in place? What sorts of activities specifically do you encourage? What are the best steps an individual can take?
Yes, the film educates and motivates viewers, and the partner groups provide the "what you can do" options. There are many ways people can get involved. We will be offering some suggestions for what they can do with their own e-waste, and for thinking about what electronics they are buying at home, work, or school. Really, we need to use our purchasing power to encourage these companies to design better products—to give us better options for what to buy. So we will have a way for people to communicate that to the companies. People can also weigh in with their elected representatives (at the state and federal level) on important policies dealing with e-waste exporting and e-waste recycling.
I know that the conversation should really be focused on what is purchased and consumed, but in terms of what someone can do right now, what are your recommendation for e-waste disposal?
Actually, that issue is touched on in the film, and it's a priority issue for my coalition's work. People can absolutely make a difference by making good choices for what they do with their old electronic products - at home, at work, and at school. It's really shocking how much e-waste goes into the trash still—85% in the U.S. And it's perfectly legal to do so in most states. But e-waste shouldn't go into the trash, because of the potential for the toxic materials in it to leach into groundwater (or get emitted from incinerators) as well as the amount of recoverable resources being wasted. Instead it should get recycled, but people need to be careful in selecting a recycler. Sadly, many recyclers don't really recycle electronics, they export them to developing nations, where they are badly handled, and the toxics inside cause significant harm. So we need to make sure we use recyclers who are not exporters. One way to tell is to look for recyclers who are "e-Stewards"—part of a network of recyclers who have been qualified under a program run by one of our partner groups, the Basel Action Network. They can be found at www.e-stewards.org.
In the U.S. we throw away over 3 million tons of e-waste every year. Only 15% is recycled. What really happens to ewaste?
Legitimate recyclers are really demanufacturers. They take apart the products and use different means to separate them into the various material streams that they can sell into recovery markets. Reusable products, components or parts should be refurbished or repaired here, and then sold into various markets. But what many recyclers will do with a load of e-waste—let's say everything they collected at your community recycling event on Earth Day—is to pull out the items with the most value (like laptops or cellphones) and then load the rest onto a shipping container. Then they sell it to a waste trade broker, who gets the container to the port, and off it goes to China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, or other developing countries. It ends up in these very crude metals recovery operations—where they are bashing the equipment open to get at the metals inside. They cook the circuit boards in a wok or over a burner to melt the solder to recover the lead, so they breathe the lead fumes. They pour acids on the circuit boards to get at the gold and other precious metals. And they burn the plastics, which emits dioxin, one of the worst poisons you can breathe.
When you talk about leveraging our purchasing power—are you talking about a boycott? Or collaborative consumption? Maybe a Groupon for green electronics?
I think we need to use our collective consumer voices to say that we want the companies to provide better options, and that yes we WILL buy greener products if you provide them. Certainly, there are some slight improvements happening now, and we should be looking for those when we make buying decisions. (We have information about that on our website.)
Don't you think that the individual's purchases are fairly insignificant when considering the CE that enterprises consume? Are we right to make this consumer play the priority?
Actually, in many categories, individual purchasers are significant—like televisions, mobile phones, games, and certain categories of notebooks, like netbooks and tablets. Plus individuals can (and do) push their employers to pay attention to this in what they buy.
What are your feelings about standards like EPEAT? More of the same with incrementally better requirements?
EPEAT is a start, but honestly it's a very modest start. EPEAT can only require product features or performance that are already available in the marketplace or soon to be available. The manufacturers (who have a large voice in setting EPEAT standards) won't support "reach" criteria that none of them can meet now, and many want to set the bar pretty low. For instance, in the current standards development process for televisions, the TV companies don't even want Energy Star to be a mandatory criteria.
Who is doing well in this space?
Different companies do well in small parts of the puzzle, but no single company seems to excel overall. On takeback and recycling (in the U.S. at least), Dell has been the most aggressive in building a large takeback infrastructure and program. On toxic chemicals, some companies are showing leadership in phasing out certain targetted chemicals of high concern, like brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and PVC. Apple was the first to move out of the whole category of halogenated flame retardants. Nokia has been a leader on PVC-free. Others have moved out of BFRs or have set timelines to do that, and are producing some BFR and PVC-free product lines. But this is such a tiny step along a very long continuum of "greening" their supply chain. Many companies don't even know what the chemicals are in their products—the production has been completely outsourced to various contract manufacturers. Sony-Ericsson has instituted a materials declaration system, requiring their suppliers to disclose all the substances used in their products. This is a good pro-active step—companies really need to ask more than "do you use any of these chemicals that are known to be high hazard" but what are all the chemicals you use, and how have you tested them to evaluate the hazards?
If communication with the companies that make consumer electronics is key, then designers are in a position of great influence. What would you recommend to a designer who makes their living creating these products?
Designers are definitely the key to developing green electronics. The first thing I would do would be to find a savvy recycler to advise me on recyclability issues. I'd take my company's existing products to that recycler's facility and have him take them apart in front of me and my team, and talk me through the challenges for disassembling the products. (Too many different type of screws, impossible fasteners, can't find the fastener, etc.) If it takes too long to disassemble (compared to the value of what's inside), that's a disincentive to recycle and an incentive to export the product. I'd ask them to show me how they can tell where all the hazardous components (batteries, circuit boards, lamps, etc.) are. These need to be removed if the product is going into a shredder but are often difficult to locate. Then I'd ask the recycler to talk to me about what he will do with all of the materials/components and which ones have a good market and which ones don't. The best way to make sure a product is not going to be recycled is to use materials that have little or no value as recycled content in some other product. If the recycler can't sell it, it's more likely to be exported or go into the landfill. Then I'd ask, would that answer be different if I used different materials? What if my goal was to use materials that could be recycled back into the company's own products. (Closed loop recycling). What would I need to do differently. I would probably need more than just this recycler to figure out the complete answer there, but that's a very key question that designers are in the best position to be asking and figuring out the path forward, even if it's incremental. What would it take to make this product completely closed-loop recyclable? It might mean using materials (like metals instead of plastic) that are more expensive on the front end, but if you can keep recovering them (in your company's takeback program and other ways), and if it reduces the need for buying virgin content (like with plastics), what's the upside there, in cost, energy footprint, and other measures important for your sustainability goals. I think if companies could sell products that they could honestly say they were recycling back into their own products, they would be huge in the marketplace. Many people don't want to stop buying their new gadgets all the time, so knowing that you can buy one that is truly recyclable would be very popular.
I'd also talk to the sustainability person for my company about how changes in the products designs could translate into meeting sustainability goals, and other metrics that can be used in marketing the products. Companies have this notion that people don't care about green products. But surveys show people do care, but are wary of greenwashing.
You mentioned finding a "better option for what to buy." What might be an example of this?
A better option could be the 100% closed loop recyclable or remanufacturable cell phone. Between the materials and parts, it could be completely recycled back into new cell phones. Because it would have high value as a recycled commodity, the company would buy it back from you at a decent price. Another example might be a TV with a full 10 year manufacturer warranty. They claim these new flat panel products will last from 10 to 15 years. Why not back that up with a warranty? Even just focusing on the warranties on all electronics would make a big difference when it comes to making longer lasting products. I think we'd see more modular designs to enable fast warranty repairs, as well as selecting components that don't fail so soon. If new printers included a minimum of a three year warranty, some of these disposable products would probably disappear, which would be a good thing. In the long term, a "better option" has to mean that they have actually figured out what chemicals are in the products, and they've actually tested them and have replaced the hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives.
I completely agree that we need to involve policymakers in this conversation, but do you think writing emails or texts to elected officials is really the best way to make change? It seems limited and piecemeal. No?
It's a part of making change. Certainly the state laws that mandate companies to take back and recycle their products are the driving force for electronics takeback in this country. Most of the companies' voluntary programs are weak, but in states with strong laws, they really work at it.
The state laws on chemicals restrictions are also driving some change. But it's just as important for consumers to be contacting the brand owner companies themselves, not just the government, to say that we want the companies to do better in providing genuine green electronics, not just greenwashed ones.
While we look for a silver bullet, we honestly need an silver buckshot. That means that consumers, designers/manufacturers, and legislators need to work together to create solutions. What is your nirvana scenario for how this might work?
Absolutely. I'd love to see some kind of consortium of the companies, designers, legislators, consumers and academics who really want to push for green products. Not the kind of stakeholder process where half of the stakeholders are there to make sure there is no progress. But a true leadership group. I think this would be an international effort—Europe is always ahead of us on things like this. Maybe it would be the Green Electronics Challenge—that would emerge with a list of longterm goals or criteria for what comprise green electronics, with an industry roadmap for getting there. It would need to identify (or develop) tools for measuring whether products meet the metrics - like a tool for determining how infinitely recyclable a product really is, (not just in theory). I think the companies are simply not challenging (or funding) their designers to come up with greener products, and to use their innovation talents to find green solutions. This endeavor would be all about that challenge. It would be where the brand owners who really want to make sustainable products can lay out the challenges, and the Designers Accord members would figure out the process for how to overcome them.
It's very likely that some kind of cooperative research effort is also needed to really find safer alternatives to the toxic chemicals used in electronics. It's a heavy lift for any individual company to do this research alone—and many of these companies don't even have in-house research units. Having the Green Electronics Challenge relying on safer chemicals to achieve the goals would help create incentives for this research, but some joint ventures for developing the alternatives is probably also needed here.