Recycling our e-waste

Our high turnover of tech gear (phones, TVs, computers, etc) is responsible for a correspondingly high quantity of worryingly toxic waste cascading into our rubbish bins and thence to landfill. I wrote about the issue eighteen months ago when a Southern recycling company laudably took the trouble to visit Townsville but the topic is worth revisiting now, especially since we have just enjoyed Christmas and are consequently about to enjoy (if that’s the right word) disposing of old stuff to make room for our presents. (How long does the transition from favourite gadget to junk take, anyway? Longer than ripping off some wrapping paper?)

e-waste infographicAs it happens, a second e-waste recycler contacted me a couple of months ago to see whether I would post their infographic here but I couldn’t find time before Christmas to do so. Here it is now – just click on it to see a larger version, or right-click (control-click) on it to download one – and here’s what they told me about themselves:

PC RECYCLERS is an e-waste collection and recycling company, helping Australian organisations do their part for the environment. Based in Brisbane, the PC RECYCLERS team offer free collection of e waste to schools, businesses and organisations throughout Queensland and nationwide. For specific e-waste recycling services such as computer recycling, PC RECYCLERS provide free data destruction to Department of Defence 5220.22M standards with disposal reporting. For more information on their services or to organise a free collection in Townsville or the wider NQ area, visit www.pcrecyclers.com.au

Now that’s all fine, and I don’t mind giving them a plug for it, but we still have a problem at the household level: they offer, “free collection of e waste to schools, businesses and organisations,” and I don’t think my household qualifies as any of the above. Do we have to get (for instance) NQCC to organise a community collection? Could we suggest that our nearest school does it? In return for a donation, maybe?

There are obviously strong possibilities here for groups with initiative but each of them will only collect from a small percentage of households so we are still only intercepting a small percentage of our e-waste. This is clearly a work in progress – but at least it is now in progress.

More information

The PC RECYCLERS chart lists website references but you can’t just click on them and they are a bit old anyway. These links take you to the organisations the chart refers to but not to exactly the same documents:

Solar-powered aircraft

Solar Impulse in flight

Solar-powered aircraft touches down in New York City

An aeroplane powered entirely by the sun has touched down in New York City, completing the final leg of an epic two-month journey across the United States.

A year ago it flew from Spain to Morocco to claim the title of first solar-powered intercontinental plane, but in reality that was a much smaller achievement since the distance was so much shorter. (When you think about it, the shortest possible intercontinental flight is probably ten metres or so from Africa to Asia, or a hop along the bridge between Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus. But hey, it made a good headline.)

More seriously, the Solar Impulse is an excellent demonstration project, like (for instance) the Australian solar car challenge, and it’s great to see its success. Perhaps we should have a solar plane race to push the technology ahead even faster?

More: abc news, UN press release

Geeky fun: metronomes and extreme video

My spies alert me to some fascinating science and tech stuff on the web (thanks, guys!) and it’s time to share again.

1. Metronomes

If you put lots of metronomes on a table and start them at different times, they look for all the world as though they notice each other and gradually agree to line up so that their ticking is synchronised. See a very cute video of it here and read about why it happens.

Read the comments, too. As a musician I particularly liked the one from Bill Benzon:

I make synchrony the centerpiece of my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, where I discuss Strogatz on fireflies and Barbasi on synchronized clapping. I argue that, when people make music together they individually give up so many degrees of freedom that the overall neural-state space for the group is no larger than that for any one independent individual. And that’s a good thing, otherwise no one in the audience would be able to make sense of the performance as no one has more than their own brain available to make sense of the sound.

2. Light at one trillion frames per second

If the metronomes made you smile, this one will make your jaw hit the ground. The TED talk speaker leads a group which takes high-speed video to levels I had never even contemplated: they have made a movie of a beam of light progressing through a Coke bottle. I have seen it and I still think it sounds flat-out impossible but I have to accept that they have done it.

More geeky fun

Previous posts: Lightning, mathematical butterflies and Kottke’s blog;  interactive periodic table; the scale of the universe; or just browse the ‘technology’ category via the sidebar menu.

E-waste collection in Townsville

We throw out a lot of junk. Some of it peacefully decomposes without any further impact on the environment but some of it is quite toxic. One particular category is both highly toxic and, ironically, full of valuable materials: junked technical gear, or e-waste. That gives us two good reasons to dispose of it as thoughtfully as possible. An excellent article on Gizmodo begins:

The brand new tablet/smartphone/GPU you grabbed last week is the cat’s meow. But what happens to it – or to any of the devices you once treasured- when you don’t want or need them anymore? Where do they go? Is there a reliable, “green” way to dispose of them? And hey, does one extra electronic gadget in a landfill really put the big hurt on the environment?

Let’s start simple by looking at one of today’s most ubiquitous electronic gadgets, the mobile phone or smart phone. … The mobile phone is far from green. Indeed, it houses a lot of stuff you certainly wouldn’t want to sprinkle on your cereal. Stuff like copper, gold, lead, nickel, antimony, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, mercury, arsenic, and coltan (more on coltan in a moment), among others.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff not to like about the way we deal with our old and unloved electronics. We toss way too much of it. We recycle some of it, but even then the machinery behind that recycling is flawed and we’re only beginning to understand the dangers that come from the hazardous materials that lay inside. Changes are afoot, but the evidence of an apathetic past and present, like the e-waste itself, is piling up.

And let’s not forget – not all unused products are immediately given the heave-ho. Consumers tend to stockpile stuff they don’t use any longer. Admit it – how many old game consoles or mobile phones or laptops or TVs or cameras or CD players, Walkmans, record players, spare monitors are sitting around your house right now because you’ll either use them again one day (fat chance), or because you just don’t know what to do about it?

That last paragraph describes my position so well that they must have peered into my cupboard! Seriously, disposing of old tech stuff without sending it straight to landfill can be difficult, especially if you’re outside the big cities. Last time I tried, I rang and emailed around to try to do the right thing. Our only computer recycler wouldn’t take anything that wasn’t relatively new and commercial-grade; no city council department could help; local waste recyclers didn’t take e-waste; and Brisbane e-waste recyclers didn’t have any way to get my junk from here to there.

Right now, people in Townsville have a one-off chance to do the right thing with their techno-rubble, since a Brisbane company is coming to us for one day: Buyequip is holding another

Electronic Waste Recyclathon

at 3 – 7 Macrossan St, South Townsville,
between 9.00 and 3.00 on September 7, 2012.

On the day, they will be accepting the following electronic waste:

  • Computers – laptop and desktop
  • Monitors – LCD and CRT
  • Printers and scanners
  • Computer peripherals – power supplies, networking equipment, cables, etc.
  • Telephones and mobile phones (but not televisions or whitegoods)

Buyequip is an award winning End of Life IT Services organisation dedicated to preventing electronic waste entering our landfills. More than 98% of the materials collected on the day will be diverted from the landfill waste stream.
If you are keen to attend, please email Suzie Bowen suzie.bowen@buyequip.com.au or call her on 0488 331 662 . They look forward to seeing you on the day!

More information:

The Gizmodo article recommends a Greenpeace study that ranks the most dominant tech producers in terms of their environmental footprint and a Newsweek article which ranks the top 100 largest publicly traded companies in the world in terms of their greenness.

Afterword

The day came, and I took a couple of boxes of our e-waste down to South Townsville. The operation there was simplicity itself: one container on a vacant block, two people, a clipboard so people could leave their names and contact info (presumably for next time). By the time I arrived, the container was about half full and there were boxes on the grass beside it, waiting to be stacked inside.

old computers in containerold computer gear in container

More netizen science

Encyclopedia of Life

One of my first posts to this blog mentioned Encyclopedia of Life, a major international collaborative effort to document the living world around us. Its list of sponsors and supporters starts at the highest possible levels (Smithsonian Institution)  and goes all the way down to amateurs like myself, contributing by uploading photographs of my local wildlife.

Dragonfly perched on twig
Local wildlife: Australasian Slimwing, Lathrecista asiatica festa

There is only one way for an ordinary person to contribute images, i.e. the EOL Flickr group at http://www.flickr.com/groups/encyclopedia_of_life/. The rules for the group basically say that images need a creative commons license allowing third parties to use them free of copyright and a ‘machine tag’ which will enable automated harvesting of images from the group to EOL itself.

Flickr membership needn’t cost you anything. A free account allows you to upload 300MB worth of photos per month and if you resize them to roughly screen resolution (say 1000 x 750 px) they will be under 1MB each, allowing you hundreds of uploaded images per month if you have that much free time.

It takes a bit of time and fiddly work to set up a Flickr account, choose photos and tag them, but anyone can make a useful contribution to a worthwhile project. And any Australian photos will be picked up automatically from EOL by the Atlas of Living Australia, a similar project run by CSIRO and most of our state museums.

Climate science

A question that popped up on RealClimate recently was, “In what ways could an amateur scientist contribute to the study of climate, and assist the professionals?”

The question continued, “I don’t mean advocacy, but assist in actual research. As an example in a different field of study, amateur astronomers are playing key roles by looking for supernovae and then alerting professionals when one is first found so that the far more powerful telescopes can be directed towards the exploding star to collect data …  Just like there are certain tasks that professional astronomers ‘downsource’, so to speak, to amateurs, I am curious if there are certain tasks that professional climatologists are looking to downsource.”

A good question, and it promptly got a good answer from Gavin Schmidt, one of the core members of RealClimate: “Some of the most active ‘citizen science’ projects related to climate are focused on the digitisation of old weather records (here and here), and phenology projects (for instance, here or here).” (The third of these four starts by defining ‘phenology’, in case you wondered.)

The best Australian equivalent to the US phenology projects Gavin mentions is probably Climatewatch, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other citizen science projects ranging from divers helping count marine life to students trapping and identifying barley mildew. Search the net for “citizen science projects [your state]” and find one that appeals.

Going Solar: is it the best thing for me right now?

Not necessarily.

A solar photo-voltaic system is a big non-portable investment with a multi-year payback time, and it is not equally suitable for all homes or parts of the country. It is not usually a possibility if you’re renting, either, although you could talk to your landlord about it if you know him/her well enough. And it may not be the cheapest way of reducing your electricity bill, if that is important to you.

As you can see from the chart …

  • If you have a standard electric hot water system, it is responsible for a large part of your electricity bill. Replacing it with a solar HWS or one of the new ‘heat pump’ systems may give you more bang for the buck than a PV array, especially since they will attract a federal government subsidy.
  • The second big energy gobbler (it may use more than water heating, depending on where you live) is heating and cooling, and small changes in thermostat settings can make big changes in power bills. For every 1 degree you increase your air-con thermostat by, you can save around 10% on running costs, so setting your it at 25C instead of 20C and spending the savings on caviar and French champagne is a distinct possibility.
  • The same thing, in reverse, applies to central heating if you have it.
  • If you have a swimming pool you should make sure it’s on an off-peak tariff. A high-efficiency pump would be a good idea too. (Ergon is currently encouraging those changes with cash offers.)
  • If you routinely use a clothes dryer instead of an outdoor clothes-line, change  now and save lots of dollars and CO2.
  • After that, look at the little energy-wasters – the appliances left on standby, the lights left on when they don’t need to be, and so on.

There’s plenty of advice here (Victorian government), here (which is where I found the graphic above; it’s a commercial site but their information is good) and here (CSIRO); or you could go for a home energy audit, e.g. climatesmart.

Finally, remember that all of these ideas are 100% compatible with going solar some time in the future. Or now, if that’s possible.

World Solar Challenge

This is the first time Green Path has covered a sporting event (and may be the last) but it is a pretty special event: the World Solar Challenge is a cross-continental road race for solar powered cars.

2009 winner, Tokai Challenger
The 2009 winner, Tokai Challenger

The official site announced that, “The field for this year’s World Solar Challenge 2011 Darwin to Adelaide is the largest yet. On Sunday October 16, 42 teams from 21 countries will take to the starting line, among them three teams from Australia, to do battle for line honours 3,000 kilometres away, in Adelaide.”

Good ol’ Wikipedia is better on the history than the official site:

The race attracts teams from around the world, most of which are fielded by universities or corporations although some are fielded by high schools. The race has a 20-year history spanning nine races, with the inaugural event taking place in 1987. The objective of this competition is to promote research on solar-powered cars. Teams from universities and enterprises participate. In 2005, 22 teams from 11 countries entered the primary race category. …

By 2005, several teams were handicapped by the South Australian speed limit of 110 km/h (68 mph), as well as the difficulties of support crews keeping up with 130 km/h (81 mph) race vehicles. It was generally agreed that the challenge of building a solar vehicle capable of crossing Australia at vehicular speeds had been met and exceeded. A new challenge was set: to build a new generation of solar car, which, with little modification, could be the basis for a practical proposition for sustainable transport.

That change of emphasis, with its accompanying rule changes, has effectively capped the average speed of the winners at about 100 kph, even as the technology keeps improving.

The latest news on this year’s race as I write after lunch on the 18th, is that they are half way, about to reach Alice Springs, and making good time – hitting speeds of 130 kph, in fact – after delays caused by road trains and bushfires.

Thursday 20 October: We have a result – the Japanese team won, defeating the Dutch by a very small margin. Read more at ABC News.