The environmental cost of Esquire’s e-ink cover

This month, Esquire celebrated its 75th anniversary by publishing the world’s first magazine cover with e-ink — a trippy little display that blinks and pulses (video above). It’s super cool-looking, and hackers have been trying to figure out how to tinker with it. To show off the technical challenges of producing the cover, Esquire put together a set of maps showing the globe-trotting path the various components traveled before they were assembled.

This led a few smart critics to ask a pertinent question: What the heck is the environmental cost of e-ink? Over at the Fast Company blog, Anya Kamenetz did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of the C02 emitted in producing the hardware and schlepping it all over the planet. Her conclusion:

So… the total outlay in greenhouse gas emissions for this little experiment — again, this is based on loose estimates — comes to 150 tons of CO2 equivalent, similar to the output of 15 Hummers or 20 average Americans for an entire year, and a 16% increase over the carbon footprint of a typical print publication (based on calculations by Discover Magazine, Time, and In Style). The potential environmental impact of the E Ink covers increases even more when you consider that the units are designed to be disposable after one use and they’ll make it more difficult or impossible to recycle the paper portion of the magazines.

Meanwhile, my friend Tom Igoe — a professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program — quotes sections of Esquire’s description of the production cycle and marvels at the astonishing amounts of chemical waste. From his blog:

“Shanghai, China. The issue’s display screen, electronics, and batteries are assembled here, using components made in at least seven different factories.”

As opposed to one printing factory.

“Hurdles overcome include flooding that destroyed 250,000 batteries,”

When those find their way downstream and corrode because they weren’t disposed of properly, what chemicals are going to leach into the environment?

“A very real countdown also begins: once activated in China, the batteries in the magazines will last roughly ninety days.”

Electronics that last 90 days, then are disposed of. This is a good thing?

Ouch. I’m obviously a big fan of way-kewl high-tech devices, and buy a lot of them myself, but I think this sort of fuller-cost accounting is essential to evaluating new tools. I think in the long run, I’d hope that nondisposable or reusable e-ink — along the lines of the Kindle, or some use-once-and-recycle tech we can’t yet engineer — could potentially be a net reducer of waste. But that would require very careful design. Tom is part of a movement of engineers and hackers who are beginning to think about the concept of designing electronics with the eventual goal that their components can be easily disassembled and/or reused, instead of thrown out. That’s the sort of thinking we’ll need to embrace so we don’t drown in our own e-waste.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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