It is estimated that almost 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated each year worldwide, and this number is increasing yearly, placing a major burden on our environment. Whilst some embedded parts within electronics, such as metal, are readily recyclable, plastics used in electronics have a different polymer composition and process, which makes recycling a challenge. The easiest way to produce less e-waste is to buy fewer electronics. But we know that in the ‘throw-away societies’ of the industrialised world, it is common to see that the cost of repairing faulty electric devices exceeds the price of buying new. And even then, new products are thrown away just for getting dirty. New and old are piled in our landfills where they will remain for hundreds of years.
I approached this problematic situation as a designer with a traditional crafts background. In this modern age, we use electronics daily. They’ve become one of our everyday objects, just like plates and cups. Then why don’t we pay more attention to their value? Why do we dispose of them so easily? What if they were made by a craftsman? Can craft enrich our daily lives? Through my project and with these questions in mind, I am exploring how traditional material and craft could enrich our emotional connection to such goods, as well as being far more sustainable in the process.
"Identifying plastics” by BBC News, 2019
As the desire is to focus on the process and not just the finished objects, and as the value of handcrafts is appreciated more than mass production, many companies and designers have looked to putting skilled labour and craftsmanship into their work, making more customised products. However, most of them usually focus on altering the aesthetic aspect of electronics, not their materials.
The idea of craft is definitely revitalising. Many makers and many galleries are show- ing crafted objects, many more people looking for them and audiences for these ob- jects are bigger than ever (Brown, 2004). However, these objects tend to be within traditional areas such as tableware, furniture, clothing, and sculptures. Hugo Mac- Donald, curator of the exhibition “Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters” at Harewood House, said that craft is not only something to rescue from the past, but a powerful human process that can help us shape our future, too. Why then is craft not more involved with electronics, the objects that have become an indispensable part of our daily lives? I believe that everyday electronics, such as hairdryers and laptops, are no different to cups and plates when it comes to how often we use them and although crafts and electronics are considered almost opposite to each other, material can con- nect those distant two dots. By replacing plastics in household electronics with tra- ditional crafting materials, I aimed to defamiliarise our perceptions of electronics and consumption that we’ve taken for granted, proposing a poetic alternative to the e-waste crisis we have created for ourselves.
Some leading experts on the life cycles of products, such as Dame Ellen MacArthur and Tim Brown, have said that we should view electronics as a service rather than a product. For example, “we wouldn’t buy light fittings but we’d pay for the service of light and manufacturers would recover the materials and change the light fittings when we had more efficient products” (MacArthur, 2015). It’s a possible and prom- ising way to reduce e-waste, but even in this scenario, the dominant material is still plastic, which is not biodegradable. We can design electronics that are not just easy to repair or upgrade, but with more sustainable materials, and with crafts, this can be done locally.