Saving E-Textiles from an E-waste Fate

Ji Sun Lee's moonlit flower project

E-waste sucks. In the US we trash about 400 million electronic devices every year. A study published this summer says that soft circuits and e-textiles are on track to become an even more intractable waste problem, unless early adopters turn it into a green technology.

An article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology from August discusses how the very thing that makes e-textiles interesting–the unobtrusive integration of electronics and fabric–could make them an e-waste nightmare.

What makes traditional e-waste so difficult is that it contains valuable stuff like precious metals and rare earths, but in small quantities that are hard to recycle and laced with toxins.

Enter e-textiles. Who isn’t charmed by the idea of a biking sweatshirt with built-in turn signals or accessories that could let your doctor know if your heart rate goes wacky? Not only that, but soft circuits have driven the use of electronics and microcontrollers by women and beginners through the roof.

The problem is that soft circuits contain valuable substances in even smaller concentrations than traditional electronics. Even in Europe where e-waste laws are the strongest, it’s a battle to recycle old gadgets. E-textiles as they are currently designed make it harder to classify them as either clothing or electronics, and make it harder to reclaim valuable materials like silver in conductive thread.

But the authors urge technology and fashion developers to think ahead before the problem hits the mass market. Can we use design thinking to make e-textiles out of non-toxic or biodegradable materials? Can we simplify the separation of electronic ingredients from fabric? Most importantly, how can we prevent pollution while products are still on the drawing board?

At the moment, the people who are experimenting with soft circuits and e-textiles generally aren’t thinking about the waste implications, but they should be. How can creative thinkers, designers, makers and hackers help this emerging technology become a green investment opportunity? What tools do designers need to help them design for a product’s entire lifecycle, all the way through recycling to its rebirth as a new object?

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