On London's bustling South Bank, the WEEE Man has risen. The creation of designer Paul Bonomini, the 7-m-tall humanoid figure which looks like a menacing mechanical skeleton escaped from some Tim Burton movie weighs 3 tons and is made of 553 pieces of electrical and electronic waste, including 95 small household appliances (such as vacuum cleaners, toasters and irons), 55 larger consumer items (TVs, video and DVD players, camcorders), 35 pieces of computer and mobile-phone equipment, 12 washing machines, 10 refrigerators and six microwave ovens.
That's roughly the amount of electronic equipment a typical young Briton will throw away over a 78-year lifetime. The sculpture, commissioned by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) to draw attention to the European Union's Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) initiative, is meant to personalize and quantify the impact of a single person's gadgets on the environment. Currently, 90% of discarded electronics goes into landfills or is incinerated. Some of this waste contains lead, phosphor and barium, which have been linked to organ damage and other illnesses.
WEEE Man is part of an effort by activists to promote what they call "ecological footprinting": calculating the amount of resources we each consume to supply our needs. Pioneered in 1996 by regional planners Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, the measurement takes into account the production of food, housing, transportation, consumer goods and services, as well as the waste that's left behind. According to WWF, each person should currently have an average footprint of 1.8 hectares, the rough equivalent of two soccer fields, for the supply of his or her needs. But WWF estimates that the average stomping ground is currently around 2.2 hectares, 21% more than is sustainable. "Footprinting is a snapshot," says Rob Holdway, the WEEE Man project director whose consultancy, Giraffe Innovation, provides businesses with advice on WEEE compliance. "We now need 1.2 earths to sustain our lifestyles. If everyone on the planet lived like people in Europe, we would need three planets to support the global population."
Electronic waste is one of the main culprits. About 220 million electrical products are released onto the British market alone each year. As demand for such goods increases in places like China and India, global e-waste could explode, Holdway warns. The E.U. says it's addressing the problem through its 2003 WEEE directive, which requires producers to pay for the collection of equipment and to meet targets for recycling, reuse and recovery.
But statistics need to be humanized to inspire ordinary consumers to act, says Holdway: "The footprinting tool visualizes an individual's impact. Through the metaphor of soccer fields, any user can immediately understand the impact their lifestyle is having at a global level." Holdway has built a website www.weeeman.org) that allows people to calculate their own e-waste profile by entering the number of mobile phones and computers at their home, school or office. "Take only pictures, leave only footprints" has long been an environmentalist motto. Now, activists are hoping to erase even the footprints.