One Student’s Experience with Electronic Waste

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

Most of you have probably had to deal with an old TV or computer before. When your hard drive crashed or when you needed to update from that ugly tan box taking up your entire desk you probably ran into the trouble of figuring out what to do with the old TV or computer.  I might have a different experience with electronic waste or “e-waste” then most.

I grew up with a “fix it” dad. You had a problem; dad would know what to do. For instance, my grandparents hated the pebbles that fell to the bottom of their pool. No problem; “Kids,” he’d say “its $.10 per pebble, $.20 for the really big ones.” I made a killing those summers.  When my dad learned of people’s problem of not knowing what to do with their old electronics he seemed to have no trouble finding the solution. Students of Chicago Public Schools needed computers and people had working or nearly working computers that they did not want anymore. I was 7 years old when my dad, Willie Cade, turned this into a business. He took unwanted computers, fixed them up and provided them to houses of at risk children. At the time, this just meant prospective giant fortresses of e-waste in my basement.

In high school I grew an inclination towards art but I still had aspects of my father’s love of science and technology. So in college, I decided to major in Industrial Design and Painting. Industrial designers–people that are in charge of making sleeker shoes and fancier blenders–can be considered a big proponent of the production of useless stuff which just contributes more waste to the world. But more recently, industrial designers can also be seen as friends of the environment; they can design things that use better materials, produce less waste during the manufacturing or use stages, or can be disassembled easily and without harm to the environment or sometimes even benefitting the environment. gDiapers, for instance, are flushable and compostable diapers so instead of sending diapers to landfills, you can turn the waste into biosolids. This is the type of design I am interested in.

During my junior year of college I introduced my Industrial Design professor, William Bullock, to my dad so that they could collaborate on solutions to e-waste. They came up with an idea to make a competition for students to design things using old computer parts. First, they wanted a class to figure out background information on the topic. So fall of my senior year I, along with 3 other students, researched e-waste internationally, nationally, and locally to see how big of a problem it was. We found that e-waste is a huge problem at all levels. We surveyed a couple buildings on campus and found rooms full of old computers that no one quite knew what to do with.

In the spring of my senior year I was in the second part of the e-waste class, this time with about 20 other students. In this class we surveyed other recyclers, heard presentations from various e-waste or design experts, and towards the very end of the semester held an e-waste competition. The competition was better than I could have ever imagined. It was held on the University of Illinois main quad on a beautiful day, there were a lot of interested students walking by, there were plenty of great ideas and astonishing presentations from the 21 design teams, and there were 6 prizes that consisted of thousands of dollars in scholarships. There were designs for kiosks, super computers, digital projectors that could be adapted to any low tech classroom, and even things like housing for plants and recycling stations. The competition gave me great hope for the future of e-waste. (For more information on the competition, along with links to press coverage and photos, see the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center web site.)

Now I am working at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center which is part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My job is to search for information about what the problems are related to e-waste and what is already being done about it. Some days I am more optimistic than others but overall I feel like this problem will get better.

In the coming weeks I’ll write more about my experiences in Professor Bullock’s class, providing tips for how to host an e-waste collection event. I’ll also be interviewing my dad, Willie Cade, to present more about e-waste issues from the perspective of a recycler/refurbisher and William Bullock to hear about his take on e-waste from the industrial design perspective.

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