E-waste: How our cultural obsession with making ugly things beautiful might actually work in our favour.
E-waste is discarded electronic appliances. It is also one of the most accelerating environmental threats we are facing right now. Imagine the trash heaps that are caused by e-waste. You’re probably also picturing a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Black Mirror episode. Sky-high piles of iPhones, monitors and circuit boards. Some of us even have a small-scale version of this in an inconspicuous cupboard somewhere. How many old phones have you discarded, rendered obsolete by a newer, sexier model? Unfortunately, these outdated tech-carcasses are posing the newest form of ecological damage.
Yet some savvy designers are transforming e-waste into beautiful jewellery. Within your iphones and computers lies treasures of gold and platinum. Whilst this array of precious metals have the potential of becoming say, a pair of gold hoops, they’re being lost to the tech-hungry trash stream. Dr Sandra Wilson of the University of Dundee provides insights into e-waste jewellery that somehow carve a platform which appeals perfectly to the millennial consumer:
“Just as many people choose to have heirloom jewellery reworked into fashionable new pieces, some may choose to do the same with old gadgetry. If you met on Tinder then you may feel your mobile had been fundamental to your relationship and want to use the gold from the circuit board in a wedding ring.”
This kind of innovation allows us to imagine a functional and viable future for e-waste. Push this concept further, and we can definitely envision a market for this kind of jewellery. 90s nostalgics will be sporting their Game Boys and Sega Drives in the form of gold rings and pendant necklaces. The phrase ‘tech-savvy’ gains new meaning in this sense - one which has a positive impact on social, economic and environmental relations within the waste industry.
Dr Wilson will be speaking on April 3rd at Making Impact - a conference for jewellers exploring how the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relate to the jewellery industry. With her expertise regarding electronic waste, perhaps fellow jewelers will be inspired to consider the economic opportunities offered by e-waste.
“I think that the next gold rush will not be in California but in the landfill sites in cities – it will be an urban gold rush.”
An article published by the New York Times predicted that by 2021, 57 million tons of e-waste - harbouring a tech-tastic cocktail of toxic substances - will enter the already unsettling trash stream. To put this in perspective, that’s the equivalent weight of the Empire State Building… multiplied by 150. This figure has doubled over the past decades, and yet we continue to consume and discard as if this e-waste was fortuitously evaporating into thin air.
So how are a few recycled pendants going to make a real impact on this trash catastrophe? Perhaps a few circuit boards were spared from the e-waste smuggling networks, right? Fashion has proved countless times that when used to make environmental statements, both guilt and action are inspired. We may risk fetishising very environmental issues that of course, shouldn’t be undermined by consumer-orientated mediums. But if being aware and informed becomes equated with being fashionable, let’s face it, it’s a step towards better eco-consciousness.
The new wave of consumer mentality is thirsty for ecocentric values, and displays of creativity and innovation - as is the case with e-waste jewellery - quenches such desires. London based designer, Eliza ‘Lylie’ Walter represents another designer harnessing this tech medium. Crafting all her jewellery from e-waste salvaged metals, the designer shows how being sensitive to environmental issues does anything but sacrifice the final product. A partnership between Dell and eco-conscious jewellery brand BaYou with Love witnessed the creation of a 100% recycled gold jewellery line sourced from Dell’s e-waste stores. According to head designer, Nikki Reed, ‘extracting gold from old computer motherboards that is 99% more environmentally friendly than extracting gold from the earth’. This design process also avoids the harsh labour conditions of mining and health hazards they consequently pose.
Many individuals (including certain world leaders) like to sweep environmental issues under the rug. The truth of the matter is that you can’t sweep a 1999 model keyboard under a rug. Which is why it’s likely that your first ever computer is currently being burnt in a salvage e-waste site in Ghana, posing pollution hazards to the surrounding landscapes and worker’s health. By challenging the anthropocentric fabrics of jewellery design, these e-waste jewellery designers propose a new way of imagining the future of fashion and how it interacts with technology.
Unfortunately, e-waste does not just sit on concrete islands, out of sight and nonthreatening to society. The chain reaction caused by e-waste poses issues that concern gang crime, child labour, and health epidemics. In turn, finding new ways to upcycle e-waste, such as through jewellery, has positive implications in a number of social scenarios as well as environmental.
Next time you discard your archaic electronics, consider where it will end up. As fashion becomes increasingly eco-conscious, innovations made my these e-waste jewellers allow us to envision a ecocentric future that’s forever à la mode. Just last month, Per Götesson’s AW19 Men’s collection featured recycled broken bottle jewellery by Husam el-Odeh. Upcycling is fashion’s new vehicle for expression - an ode to both style and sustainability.