Looking for e-waste in all the wrong places

June 8, 2023 | By Joshua Farrington

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Even with the best of intentions, recycling can go awry, and it’s not always the fault of careless consumers. As the Financial Times discovered in a detailed investigation, getting rid of electronic waste through proper methods can lead to old gadgets landing in unexpected places.

Around 114,000 tons of electronic waste are lost from the U.K. recycling system to theft every year, with much of that waste illegally exported to Africa and Asia, where it’s often smelted for copper and other metals in unsafe conditions and with disastrous environmental consequences.

So recently the publication placed tracking devices in 14 broken laptops and then disposed of them through the recycling services of six large British retailers to test where the computers would end up. The investigation found leakage — when goods wind up outside the formal recycling system — to be a pervasive problem. While none of the trackers left the U.K., two of the laptops found their way to eBay resellers, and one appeared to have been stolen — twice.  

In a society where new models of phones, tablets, laptops and TVs are released every year, much of our tech is seen as inherently disposable, but all of that metal and plastic has to end up somewhere. “We’re throwaway Britain,” one eBay seller who dealt with recycled tech told the Financial Times.

Upgrading to more sustainable tech is the right thing to do — we just have to make sure we’re doing the right thing with the old stuff too.

Pump up the heat

If you’re in a part of the world where summer is slowly rolling around, you might soon be reaching for that air conditioning remote. And if winter is setting in for you, you’re probably thinking about dialing the thermostat up. Either way, you may feel a pang of guilt at the energy you’re consuming. But the way we warm and cool our homes has undergone a huge change in recent years.

Heat pumps have become the hot way (no pun intended) to change the temperature in our domestic spaces, and they’re more common than ever before. In the U.S., there were more heat pump systems than gas furnaces sold in 2022, while in the U.K., heat pump systems have been hailed as the technology of the future and the natural replacement for traditional gas and oil central heating systems, which are due to be banned in new homes starting in 2025.

Heat pump systems work like refrigerators, pumping heat from one place to another and leaving the original space cooler, whether it’s drawing warmth from outdoors and pumping into a home, or the other way around. In both cases, the technology is far more efficient than the heating systems most of us have in our homes, since moving heat around is a lot easier than creating it from scratch. By some estimates, heat pumps are around 300 times more efficient that gas furnaces, while also using far less energy to run, meaning fewer emissions — and cheaper bills.

In a world where global conflicts have made energy security a headline topic, the tailwinds for heat pumps are strong. As the Guardian just covered, U.K. households that have already made the switch are overwhelmingly positive about the change — the main issue is building and installing the pumps fast enough. Elsewhere in Europe, large-scale schemes are underway to generate heating for entire neighborhoods using heat pump technology.

According to the BBC, communities in Denmark, Sweden and Finland are already benefiting from infrastructure projects that transfer heat from sea and waste water and push it into thousands of homes.

Comfier homes without the carbon guilt? How cool is that?

Islands in the stream

With the overabundance of streaming platforms these days, there’s always something to watch, but deciding what it should be, and figuring out if you have access to it, isn’t always simple. Choice paralysis can hit us all as we flick between familiar favorites and new releases without ever choosing anything — while our dinner gets cold in front of us.

One new tech startup is trying to break that paralysis with a blend of AI and neuroscience, hoping to use an emotion-led approach to discovering content.

London-based lets users type in emotions or even just emojis to get recommendations for things to watch. Founder and CEO Ben Polkinghorne has worked with neuroscientists to develop an algorithm that pairs emotional journeys with relevant movies across more than 500 streaming services.

Watching movies is an emotional experience, and, Polkinghorne tells the website TV Technology, “Discovering them should be too … Existing streaming platforms are infuriating their customers with arguably ancient, flawed and unsophisticated recommendations that often fail to connect people to the content they crave.”

With the help of a grant from Innovate UK, the startup hired two neuroscientists at the University of Surrey, Kathrin Kadosh and Philip Dean. “By measuring brain activity as people watch movies, we begin to understand the neural signatures of emotional processing,” Dean explains to TV Tech. “This raw emotional data can then feed an algorithm to automatically predict how a movie will make someone feel.”

Based on this study, the company was able to create an algorithm based on emotions that has now been used to categorize 676,906 movies — from “fuzzy vibes” to “mind blown” to emojis like a unicorn or Edvard Munch’s “Scream.” (Let me guess ... "Scream"?)

The free service is now live in 118 countries, with a collection that includes 516 streaming services. Users don't have to pay for it, and there are plans to work with content companies to license its patent-pending technology.

Joshua Farrington, contributor