Is This the Next Time? The Need for More Responsible Innovation

12/21/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012
  • Reid Lifset Associate Director, Industrial Environmental Management Program at Yale

'Tis the season of gadgetry, and one of many innovations emerging on the consumer market is electronic textiles. These e-textiles, or "smart" textiles, integrate electronics capable of collecting and sending information into the fibers of clothing. Imagine: a motherboard woven into a holiday sweater. An antenna in your skullcap.

Imagine, also: soaring mountains of e-waste, as the United Nations has described the 50 million tons of electronics disposed of every year. Imagine how e-textiles will contribute to these mountains, their obsolescence a factor of both advancing technology and the rapid cycles of seasonal fashion.

The standard model is to invent first and consider environmental consequences later. Equally standard are calls to get it right next time -- to be proactive for the next technological innovation.

An article published recently in Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology identifies e-textiles as the next "next time," undertaking the first analysis of their end-of-life implications. The results predictably illustrate that reliance on business as usual won't do the trick.

Electronics contain valuable metals like copper, gold and silver; but as they have diminished in size and become more ubiquitous, developed countries have not been able to keep pace with either the infrastructure or economic incentives needed to recapture and recycle these products. Basic statistics -- to the extent we have such statistics -- tell the story: of the 29.4 million computers disposed across the globe in 2009, 18 million, or almost 40 percent (by weight), of these relatively large products were recycled. Of the 129 million smaller mobile devices disposed of that same year, only 11.7 million, or 8 percent, were recycled.

This low overall rate of recycling leads to greater demand for virgin materials. It is easy to infer that e-textiles will be hard to identify, widely dispersed, and ultimately more elusive to recyclers.

Even if there existed an effective system for collecting the profusion of consumer electronics, there is no technology today capable of recycling e-textiles: sent to standard electronics recyclers, e-textiles will jam shredding machines; sent to textile recyclers, the metal content will contaminate recycling streams. There is a problematic and frequently ignored lag between the release of new technology and the establishment of a corollary waste management industry.

E-textiles also highlight the serious human health and social justice problems of e-waste.

Though economic hurdles hinder the recycling of electronics in developed countries, informal "backyard recycling" operations for electronics have taken root in many developing countries, where it makes economic sense for impoverished populations to recover and resell small amounts of valuable metals. The e-waste trade, though for the most part illegal, generates towering mounds of electronics in poor neighborhoods. These mounds are lit on fire, and they blaze like funeral pyres, casting thick plumes of toxic black smoke into nearby marketplaces and schools. When the fires burn down, metals can then be recovered and sold.

Unregulated leaching with acid and mercury is also used for the recovery of trace amounts of gold.

E-textiles, likely to end up as part of the licit and widespread export of clothing to developing countries, will simply add fuel to the fire of this market.

E-textiles are in a critical phase of prototyping during which end-of-life considerations can still be folded into the design process. Unfortunately, virtually nobody is thinking in these terms. Andreas Köhler at the University of Delft, whose dissertation research focuses on the disposal of e-textiles, has spent the past two years interviewing engineers, designers, and public officials about the above concerns.

"The response has not been very encouraging," said Mr. Köhler in an interview. "Everybody has told me, 'It's very good that you're doing this but, please, don't bother us'."

Margarita Benitez, who works with e-textiles at Kent State University, noted in an email exchange that, "unfortunately, most folks involved in the field are... not necessarily considering end of life or taking a cradle-to-cradle mentality in designing e-textiles."

As long as innovation looks only toward the birth of a product, and not as far as its inevitable death, the serious and quickly escalating challenges of e-waste will not be addressed. E-textiles afford an important opportunity to demonstrate responsible and environmentally sound design; but the window for this opportunity is slender and narrowing.

As 2012 begins, I would encourage the innovators in this field to pause -- to make a resolution for more sustainable paths forward in the development and deployment of electronic textiles.

For more information on the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology, see the center's webpage.