The pool at the bottom of the Lavender Pit pit is the color of rust, burnt red and bleeding. The pit is part of the inactive Copper Queen mining complex in Bisbee, Arizona. On the crater’s rim is a commemorative plaque that asks, “Why dig the pit?” Because, the plaque goes on to answer, “every electronic gizmo from refrigerators to iPods needs copper wiring.”
The Lavender Pit opened in the 1950s, the midpoint of a century scientists call the Great Acceleration for the huge — and swift — impact that modern human life had on the planet. The period was marked by changes in how natural resources were extracted and used, especially for new technologies. These changes can be pinpointed in time by the emergence of technofossils, artifacts composed of materials that occur rarely or not at all in the absence of technological and scientific intervention. Think purified forms of iron, aluminum, and titanium; artificially isolated forms of metals like neodymium; or synthetic glasses and plastics. All these materials and more go into the making of today’s digital devices.
You can imagine your old television or even the smartphone you’re reading this on becoming the technofossils of tomorrow. But everything digital devices are made from and that enables them to operate was, at some point, extracted from the earth. In a real sense, technofossils aren’t something our devices are waiting to become at some distant point in the geological future. Our devices are made of fossils now.
Extracting those fossils, constructing our gadgets, and, eventually, discarding them is a destructive cycle that only stands to get worse in the coming decades as demand for electronics grows around the world. It is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.
Today, we generate around 55 million tons of discarded electronics every year. Try to imagine 5 million elephants or 110 Burj Khalifas piled on top of each other and you’ve got the rough idea. That number is expected to grow by 3 to 5 percent annually, as reported in the 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor. Assuming 3 percent growth, our e-waste generation will double in a little more than 23 years. At 5 percent, the doubling time declines to about 14 years.