… from PsychBlog: “3 reasons why we don’t care about the environment” – the political dimension

see original post here: http://www.psychblog.com/3-reasons-why-we-don%e2%80%99t-care-about-the-environment-2010-06


Oil is great: it has a high energy density, can be distilled and ‘cracked’ into many valuable products, and even more importantly, it’s a liquid.
Oil is terrible: it makes a mess when extracted, makes a mess when burned, and is now chiefly found in difficult places–places with structural societal problems (poor governance, high poverty rates; and in places difficult to access due to geography, such as on the ocean floor or in the arctic.

Because so much of our infrastructure is dependent on oil and petrochemical products, we’re stuck with it for at least the foreseeable future. The best we can do is to engineer a phaseout: reducing use of oil as a fuel (our successors will ask with incredulity: “you -burned- oil?”) with the goal of eventually eliminating its use, and to reduce its use as much as possible as a base stock for petrochemicals and hydrocarbon plastics.

This will not be easy to do technically, and will be even more difficult to do politically. Entire nations’ economies are built on oil, and most are in a terribly precarious situation–a large and underemployed population which will be in a much worse mood when the foreign currency stops flowing when the oil stops flowing. Can Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and other nations build a non-oil dependent economy to support their citizens? (Saudi Arabia, of the above, occupies potentially the most dangerous position, given its relative lack of other resources and human-capital intensive-jobs)

The ruling classes of oil-dependent nations are not likely to relinquish their power so easily–although investing now in infrastructure and systemic change will make life much better for most people (although it seems too easy for the rich and powerful to escape to St. Moritz when the country collapses, that may be getting harder).
International, nongovernmental, and public pressure could have an effect on this transition behavior-putting the ‘writing on the wall’ so to speak so the sheiks get the idea that something must be done now (like Norway’s ‘rainy day (i.e. post oil) fund’ to get ready for the future. A post-oil future.

No matter what you wish to think, the future is coming.

Spelunking the Cell Phone

To determine the contents of a mobile, without the aid of a reverse-engineering company like iSuppli (student discount price for the report I need: 3200 USD), I did the dismantling myself.  The local Verizon store was nice enough to give me a few very dead phones, which I proceeded to dismantle and weighed the components to get a close enough estimate of what’s inside to do a fair LCA.

A mobile phone, especially a small one like a Motorola RAZR, is really an exercise in packaging design: how to cram in all the necessary circuitry, and as big a battery as possible, while keeping the form factor to something that reasonably pleases the management and doesn’t deviate too far from the designers intentions—although most phones seem to have been designed by committee (you know the joke), rather than by Naoto Fukasawa. 

Behold the ‘potato phone’ 


it’s pretty elegant and has this wonderful tactile-ness, the shape of the shell resembling the squared-off facets of a potato peeled with a knife.  Man, Naoto Fukasawa is cool.

Regardless, there’s a lot to cram in there.  I dismantled a Nokia candy-bar phone, rescued from the e-waste bin and here’s what it’s made of:


DSC_0801 plastic shell, looks like polycarbonate, ABS, and silicone or other synthetic rubber

 DSC_0811Keypad button pad, mainboard, joystick, and chassis: aluminum, printed circuit board, button switch covers are possibly softened PVC

DSC_0813 keypad: silicone and ABS or PC

DSC_0809 screen: glass, liquid crystal element, circuit board, aluminum and ABS chassisDSC_0810 reverse of display – with camera (mid-right)

DSC_0812  circuit board back side, with shielding: printed circuit board, gold printed circuitry, CCD camera, aluminum shielding, connectors, copper wiring

DSC_0800 Lithium-ion battery: lithium polymer chemistry electrolyte, steel canister cell shielding, ABS plastic shell, copper interconnects

DSC_0803 DSC_0807 Back shell: polycarbonate (it says so)

DSC_0805 screws: blackened mild steel


With all these materials, most of which are not easily recycled, the more than 1 billion cell phones in circulation make for a pretty hefty impact at end of life, and made a pretty large impact in their creation as well.

While the majority of the innards are electronics and battery, the impact can be reduced by designing for disassembly (which requires human labor input), and a change from the current mode of ‘recycling’ where the phone is shredded first then put through a materials recovery process, which mostly recovers the basic metals (recovery of exotic metals still is infeasible—the tantalum in your phone ends up as contaminants in the recovered metals.

Using recyclable materials instead of ones which degrade is a pretty basic choice: the aluminum and glass shell of the iPhone is eminently recyclable, as opposed to polycarbonate which cannot be recycled to the same polymer level—recycled PC (where it is recycled) usually ends up as a filler plastic for things like bumpers and packing materials.