BLOG | Technology for wildlife and the looming spectre of e-waste

Laure Joanny blogs from Indonesia where she has been based for a number of months doing fieldwork

Laure Joanny is a Doctoral Researcher on the BIOSEC project. Her research focuses on the increasing use of surveillance technologies for conservation purposes. She writes this blog on e-waste from Indonesia where she has been doing fieldwork for a number of months.

Stalking endangered eagles, keeping elephants away from crops and villages, alerting of poachers intrusion in protected areas: there is an app for that. Or more likely conservation projects can now resort to a battery of sensors, tracking and computing tools. Systems such as these are being invested in left, right and centre across conservation projects around the world in an attempt to assess the state of biodiversity and support efficient interventions.

Yet, there is an inherent contradiction between protecting species and habitats and investing in non-biodegradable, pollutant-full devices to help reach that objective. Forget plastic straws, this is the really bad stuff. Hazardous chemicals and heavy metals are involved. LCD screens contain mercury, computer circuit boards contain lead and flame retardants, without mentioning the plastic used to bind it all together. Producing these tools and running the data centres and telecommunications networks to use them also entails fast rising energy consumption.

In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) was generated, and only 20% of this is documented as being collected and recycled properly. The rest often ended up illegally exported to emerging countries, waiting in dumps to be taken apart in a rudimentary way, with toxic materials seeping into the air, soil and water in the meantime, affecting people and wildlife. Alarming quantities of flame-retardant chemicals used in electronics have for instance been detected in birds’ eggs in North America and China.

Hugh Byrne. Street vendor in Yangon selling used electronic components. 2013. Flick. Some Rights Reserved

I have recently been interviewing conservation practitioners in Indonesia about their use of data collection and analysis technologies. Let me tell you, I have heard many stories of broken quadcopter drones, lost tracking collars, obsolete GPS units or camera traps destroyed by humidity. It is most likely the same in other contexts. What becomes of these useless devices? They might sit at the back of a filing cabinet for a few years, but then what? The archipelago-country does not even currently have legislation defining and regulating the disposal and recycling of e-waste.

Camera Trap – Laure Joanny
GPS – Laure Joanny

Of course, it would not be fair to put the burden of managing global e-waste on field conservationists and protected area managers. They are, after all, operating within global production, consumption and waste (mis)management structures they individually have little control over.  Yet, increased awareness of the issue is key at a time where tech is spreading to conservation sites.

Long-term measures could be integrated in conservation technology design and deployment to prolong the life of devices and ensure safe disposal. These could be actions such as building and investing in devices that contain less polluting elements and can easily be taken apart for components to be reused, better maintenance services, setting up or joining collection and recycling programmes where they exist. In China for example, the ‘Baidu Recycle’ app connects consumers with approved recycling services.

Some conservation tech initiatives already have systems of that kind in place.  Arribada initiative, an organisation developing open source technology for conservation, is experimenting with ways to generate electricity from plants to power monitoring equipment and avoid deploying batteries or solar panels. The team from open source Audiomoth acoustic monitoring devices has a forum on its website with advice on how to repair the switch of their audio monitoring tool or protect it from humidity. Some well-resourced protected areas enter in contracts with sensor manufacturers so that their devices get repaired as and when they break down. And recently, discussion threads highlighting a budding awareness of the issue amongst practitioners were started on the information-sharing platform WILDLABS.NET. One relates to ways of disposing of or replacing the omnipresent lithium batteries and the other concerns swaps of second hand wildlife monitoring equipment. But for the time being, these actions remain marginal and, for the most, focused on the end of these tools’ life cycle.

Better data capture and analysis technology is certainly not a silver bullet to protect the environment but if it ends up leaking mercury, lead or lithium in some wasteland in Java or off the coast of Sumatra, it is not even one helpful tool amongst others, it might become downright counterproductive.