GOING FOR GOLD (Crafts Magazine)
After the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics incorporated electronic waste into their medals and as London’s Design Museum showcases an installation by artist Ibrahim Mahama made from electronic waste for its exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do?, Katie Treggiden, author of Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure, explores the concept of ‘urban mining’ and talks to the craftspeople using e-waste in their work.
Most of us remember learning the periodic table at school. Neat rows of boxes filled with mystifying combinations of letters and numbers, each representing one of the 90 elements that are the building blocks of everything on Earth. Sitting on those science lab stools, none of us imagined they might run out but, today, some are already in short supply. In fact, the European Chemical Society has released a new periodic table, putting 12 elements on an ‘endangered’ list. Gone are the ordered lines that appeared in our chemistry books. In their place, amorphous shapes depict the comparative availability of each element, and a colour-coding system highlights which elements are most at risk and those that come from minerals mined in conflict zones. Thirty-one of the elements carry a smartphone symbol, spotlighting that they are used in every one of the 1.56 billion smart phones we make annually. Five of these are already coded red – their availability under ‘serious threat in the next 100 years’.
Precious metals such as gold, copper and silver are among those becoming scarce, while antimony (used in batteries) and lead both look set to dry up in the next decade. Their availability is hampered not by limited existence – there is as much gold on the planet as ever – but there are few effective recycling processes, which means that the decreasing supplies underground and their location in conflict zones . Approximately 10% of gold produced annually and a third of silver is used to produce electronic goods, and yet less than a fifth of e-waste is recycled – even during recycling, most rare earth metals are lost. Increasingly, the elements we need are not in the ground, but in landfill. According to one estimate, so-called ‘e-waste mountains’ hold precious metals such as gold in concentrations 40–50 times higher than can be mined underground.
The Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama highlights the scale of the problem with a mountain-like installation made from e-waste at the heart of the exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? currently at London’s Design Museum. It features alongside a film by design studio Formafantasma showing research from its three-year investigation into the recycling of electronic waste. Another output from Ore Streams – its multimedia project first commissioned by NGV Australia and Triennale Milano – is office furniture made from iron and aluminium extracted from computer cases and components. ’ says co-founder Simone Farresin. ‘The future of electronic waste is not in recycling, but in reusing components.
If the problem is being highlighted at London’s Design Museum, a potential solution took centre stage in Tokyo this summer, where medals at the Summer Olympics and Paralympics were made of recycled electrical devices. Approximately 78,985 tons of discarded devices were collected, classified, dismantled, and melted down before being turned into bronze, silver, and gold medals.
Designers and craftspeople are already thinking along similar lines. In 2015, the designer Jorien Wiltenburg put forward a ‘future design scenario’ as part of her graduate project at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam – her Micro Urban Mining project proposed that copper harvested from electronic cables could be used to weave and knit baskets and fabrics. ‘Restoring the connection between the creation and the use of an object gives us the strange but exciting feeling of having brought back to life something that was considered obsolete,’ she said at the time. It was entirely conceptual, but now pioneering makers and designers such as Sandra Wilson, Studio Plastique and Marta Torrent Boix are making such ideas a reality.
Modern-day alchemist, Sandra Wilson
Sandra Wilson is a silversmith, jeweller, researcher and educator at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, Scotland. She is interested in what she calls the ‘edges of things’. Her research exists in the spaces between jewellery and metal design and other fields – biology, psychology, anthropology and, recently, chemistry. For her Urban Gold Rush project, she collaborated with the Love Chemistry Laboratory at Edinburgh University to recover copper and gold from old computer circuit boards she sourced on eBay, using a technique called hydrometallurgy. ‘The process works with aqueous solutions using acids to recover precious metals,’ she explains. She used hydrochloric acid to recover all the metals from the circuit boards , and then employed chemical compounds or ligands (molecules or atoms which bind reversibly to a protein) to separate them. ‘I spend a lot of time shaking flasks with different solutions and filtering chemicals,’ she says. ‘I feel like a modern-day alchemist.’
Using traditional hand-raising techniques to create sterling silver vessels, Wilson paints the surfaces with her recovered metals in solution, allowing the water to evaporate and the metals to react with the silver, creating distinctive patinas. She has discovered that the process, known as electro-chemical displacement plating, was once used by pre-Hispanic Andean metalworkers. ‘We can learn a lot from historical processes that will enable us to address sustainability,’ she says. ‘Craft values that emphasise materials, where they come from, and how we work with them are incredibly important – and craft practitioners, alongside other disciplines, are central to addressing the big cultural issues of our time.’
Wilson is now collaborating with the National Institute for Design (NID) in Ahmedabad to create a new value chain for female jewellers in India. Such artisans are often charged more for raw materials and paid poorly for their finished products. ‘This project aims to connect female jewellers to e-waste recyclers and create a new “chain of custody” mark for their finished products, so they can charge a premium,’ she says. The project has been hampered by funding cuts and COVID-19, but she is hopeful for its impact. ‘It feels like we are only now getting going,’ she says.
Sand savers: Studio Plastique
Brussels-based Studio Plastique mines electronic waste for glass, rather than precious metals. Silicon (Si) is still categorised as in ‘plentiful supply’ on the European Chemical Society’s new periodic table, but sand (SiO2) is scarce, driven by an exponential increase in demand for concrete – China has used more in the last 11 years than the USA used in the 20th century. The problem is that desert sand – eroded by wind – is too smooth to lock together and form materials such as concrete and glass, so it is the angular, water-eroded sand that is used – and it’s running out.
But there is plenty of glass in landfill. The ‘odd material out’ in electronic waste, the glass windows found in washing machines, kettles and microwaves is often difficult for facilities to recycle, despite being eminently suitable. Theresa Bastek and Archibald Godts, co-founders of Studio Plastique, spotted an opportunity. ‘It is downright stupid to neglect those materials. It is common sense to find applications for them,’ says Bastek. Common Sands – a play on ‘common sense’ – is their collection of vessels, tableware and home accessories made from glass recovered from electronic waste. The colours and textures of each piece are a result of the metal oxides and coatings used within common household appliances, and each piece is marked with the origin of the glass from which is it made, in an attempt to restore the relationships between resource, producer and user.
The first prototypes were made using traditional and the pair is now investigating semi-industrial processes to enable them to scale up. ‘Our generation is facing the consequences of poor resource management and poor design,’ says Bastek. ‘There is too much nonsense in the way we harvest, produce, and consume – long-established, yet illogical cycles that are harmful to nature. There is no way around designing with waste in the future. What once seemed utopian will become obvious. But it has to be done right, it has to be done beautifully.’
Urban miner: Marta Torrent Boix
Spanish product designer and maker Marta Torrent Boix started working with electronic waste by chance. She wanted to explore pottery and, without access to a wheel, she set about making one. Realising that she would need an electric motor if she didn’t want to power the wheel by foot, she called a mechanic friend to see whether he might have one to spare. He didn’t, but offered her a broken washing machine instead. ‘I only ever intended to use its motor, but when I started disassembling it, I realised that inside this “white box,” there were hundreds of useable parts,’ she says. ‘I ended up making the whole wheel from washing machine parts.’ She has been making machines from electronic waste ever since.
For her Urban Mines – her final project for her Material Futures MA at Central Saint Martins this year – she collected dumped electronic goods from the streets of London and repurposed them into both a table and a clay extruder to add to her potter’s wheel. She now uses these machines to make ceramic tableware. ‘Urban Mines highlights the contrast between the intangible and mechanical parts of e-waste and the tactile part of ceramics,’ she says. ‘Through this project, I am combining old craft techniques with new and wasted technology to create unique ceramic pieces.’ The pottery forms have their own distinctive style. Relatively straight-sided and oversized terracotta bowls and mugs feature chunky extruded handles that bear the marks of her machines.
Although Boix is making use of electronic waste, she’s not convinced that what she’s doing is the solution. ‘The problem starts in the way these products are produced,’ she says. ‘Complex artefacts like electronic devices have to be designed, not just for assembly and use, but for disassembly. If there as a simple way to separate and classify the integrated materials, they would be easier to recycle.’
Of course, these problems call for legislative intervention, and rules that go beyond the recently enacted ‘right to repair bill’ in the UK, but in answer to the question posed by the Design Museum, ‘what can design do?’ Formafantasma’s Simone Farresin agrees with Boix; it starts long before the end of a product’s life. ‘When you open an electronic product up, there’s no clear colour coding or labelling that tells you what is hazardous, because you’re not supposed to open it,’ he says. ‘A simple, universal colour coding system would not only increase the rare earth materials that can be salvaged, but also protect workers in the global South. Designers need to be involved because they can spot where things can be improved.’
From designers at the beginning of the process to craftspeople at the end, re-channelling the electronic waste stream is going require imagination and expertise at every stage. Luckily, it’s clear from the work of Wilson, Boix, Studio Plastique, Wiltenburg and Formafantasma that both already exist; it’s simply a matter of making the connections – a little ‘thinking around the edges’, as Wilson might put it.
All copy is reproduced here as it was supplied by Katie Treggiden to the client or publication.