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GPS Files: Ugly Afterlife of Technology Products Revealed by GPS Tracking

By Hatti Hamlin

What happens to your iPhone, laptop, or other electronic devices when you’re done with them?  If you sent something to a recycling center, you probably think it was disposed of responsibly, right? But think again. A two-year investigation by the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, found that sometimes businesses simply send electronics overseas instead of recycling them. The organization partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to use geolocating tracking devices inside old computers, TVs and printers, which they dropped off at donation centers, recyclers and electronic take-back programs all over the country.

The results were not pretty.

About a third of the tracked electronics ended up in foreign countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Canada and Kenya. Most often, they traveled across the Pacific to rural Hong Kong to be dismantled by workers who have no idea just how dangerous their jobs are. Most workers don’t wear masks, and haven’t been warned that exposure to the raw materials –particularly inhaling the dust from broken components—is life threatening.

U.S. recyclers have argued that the problem has been vastly exaggerated. Trade associations have estimated e-waste exports at a tiny fraction of the total sent to recyclers—less than 2%. But the United Nations put it between 10 and 40 percent of U.S. e-waste. Fortunately, Basel Action Network could use GPS tracking technology to generate hard data on the size of the e-waste export problem. Partnering with Carlo Ratti of the Senseable City Lab at MIT they discovered a “global e-waste flow that actually almost covered the whole planet.”

Recently, NPR did a story about the program to track e-waste. Hopefully, it will lead to more oversight and control of e-waste disposal. But the use of GPS for tracking it is just one of many examples of how GPS, invented by 2016 Marconi Fellow Brad Parkinson, is changing the world.

“It is not generally known, but GPS was available to civil users with the very first satellite in 1978, on a ‘use at your own risk basis’,” says Professor Parkinson. “But then, President Reagan, in 1992, announced that GPS would be guaranteed as a gift to the world from the United States.  He did this to benefit humanity. The e-waste project is another very creative example of using GPS to inform data-based decision making.  I applaud the use and hope that the results will be used to make the right decisions for humanity.”