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ADS8: Data Matter

Giselle Thong

I am a London-born architectural designer and earned my bachelor's degree in Architecture from the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, where I developed my practice by experimenting with filmic techniques and design through fabrication. Subsequently, I spent two years working at Tigg Coll Architects in London, where my focus was on residential projects. Last year, in ADS4, I responded to the brief, Legal Fictions, which proposed that our world is best understood as a cartoon. Developing my skills in animation, I presented a para-fictional project which explored ecological issues through the perspective of the sea. In response to this year's ADS8's brief, Data Matter, I have been researching the environmental cost of data, delving into the systems controlling electronic waste and how it is disposed of.

Show Location: Kensington campus: Darwin Building, Upper ground floor

E-waste is the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream and, as recognised in the Basel Convention of 1989 and by the United Nations, the processing of this waste presents both environmental and health risks. Despite this, international corporations such as Apple continue to use tactics that limit the repairability and shorten the lifespan of their devices, forcing their consumers to buy new products and aggravating the growing e-waste problem. This project delves into the supply chain of the iPhone, exploring the key stakeholders in the sourcing, processing, manufacturing and assembling of key components, the spaces within which these processes take place, and the labour and safety issues associated with them. It proposes a recycling facility wherein discarded technology is salvaged and transformed into new devices through a process which celebrates the methodology of salvage and repair while addressing the toxicity produced by e-waste processing in the New Territories of Hong Kong.

The design proposal operates at three scales: that of the land, the workshop and the worker. It is presented through a fictional documentary, which explores the facility through the perspective of a worker and local resident. The film uses various compositing techniques to blend found footage with animation and performance, incorporating salvage into its methodology.

This fictional documentary explores the proposed recycling facility through the perspective of the worker. It blends found footage with performance and animation, integrating ideas of salvage into its methodology.

E-waste processing can have a hugely detrimental impact on the workers, the local residents and the environment of the site. This project's research discovered that enforcing stricter rules on e-waste processing in Guiyu resulted in an increase in those practices in the New Territories, Hong Kong. This project recognises that, in order to come to a long-term solution, the consumer must reframe their perspective on e-waste. It hopes to use fictional narratives to highlight some of the issues caused by e-waste processing while, through a methodology which celebrates the process of salvage and repair, highlighting the wastefulness in Apple’s supply chain, with the aim of changing the consumer’s relationship with technology.




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The proposal works at three levels, each encompassing a different scale, both temporally and spatially:

  • The design of a series of devices to improve the working conditions of informal recycling facilities
  • The design of additional spaces and procedures in the workshop that improve the processes of recycling
  • A remediation practice to decontaminate the sites of these facilities.

In the film, each level is represented through the presence of a different colour. The colours used reference different digital compositing techniques. The use of found footage reflects the intent of the project, which is to recycle. It is blended with both performed footage and animation, referencing the speculative nature of the project.

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The film touches on the role of technology companies in creating e-waste. It compares e-waste recycling practices sanctioned by these companies with the informal recycling taking place in the New Territories. Apple’s business model exacerbates the world’s growing e-waste problem by discouraging the repair and reuse of components. Extending the life of a device through repair can be seen as a subversion of Apple’s tactics. The informal practices of repairers inform the methodology of the project, which is applied to the design of the devices and spaces of the proposed recycling centre.

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The project proposes a practice of remediation, to counteract the effects of pollution from the workshops. The aim of the protagonist is to grow the vegetables she had previously been able to. She uses sunflowers, which are able to accumulate large quantities of heavy metals and other contaminants, to stabilise the soil. 

This aspect of the proposition has the largest scale, both spatially and temporally. The film hints at the future consequences of this remediation, as the sunflowers shown on their way to becoming an invasive species. 

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The site of the project, Hung Lung Hang, is often affected by workshop fires, caused by the mismanagement of the storage of e-waste in cardboard boxes outdoors, workers smoking cigarettes and the self-ignition of lithium ion batteries. The pollutants released add to the contamination of the environment. The film imagines improvements that could be made to existing spaces to mitigate these risks. The project also proposes improved ventilation strategies, including the building of a solar chimney to improve airflow.

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The workers are exposed to a toxic mix of chemicals and compounds, with little, to no, protection. The recycled mechanised safety mask creates a pocket of filtered air in front of the users’ face. This allows the worker to breathe more comfortably, even in hot weather.

The mask is made up of salvaged parts, like computer fans air filters from tumble dryers and iPhone screens. Footage of the performative disassembly of these parts to create the device are interspersed throughout the film.

The device is shown in use by the workers in the final act of the film.

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The film finishes by speculating on the future. The proposal is designed to be an architecture that can be applied to similar typologies of the informal workshop. This is necessary due to the transient nature of theses practices.

The final act of the film illustrates the device being used by the workers in the workshop, which also undergoes improvements in the process. The emphasis on repeated motions pays homage to the methodology of salvage and repair while the introduction of new actors reinforces the speculative nature of the project.

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Apple’s marketing for the iPhone 12 emphasises certain aspects of its sustainability, especially the use of recycled tungsten and rare earth elements, essential to components like the Taptic Engine. However, I found that the recycled rare earth elements used in the new iPhone do not come from this process, but are in fact purchased from a supplier who obtains them from post-industrial sources. Apple declares that the rare earth elements that Dave the robot extracts from the device are not high enough quality to be used in its iPhones - this begs the question: where do they go?

Though Apple heavily advertises its revolutionary recycling robots, most recycling is outsourced to recycling partners who follow a strict full destruction policy, meaning all parts must be shredded - no components can be salvaged. The processing of the raw materials inevitably must then be treated through energy-intensive processes.

My research explores two recycling streams that operate in parallel: the official recycling processes that take place through Apple’s trade-in scheme, and what is deemed the “illegal” recycling route that feeds into the electronic markets of Huaqiangbei, China.