(By Nicola McFadden, Queen’s University)
Electronics are one of the biggest contributors to global waste. “E-waste,” as it has been termed, consists of discarded electronic materials. For most consumers, disposing of an mp3 player, phone, or computer is an insignificant and recurring part of their lives, and they might give little to no thought to the long-term consequences of such actions. And yet, the environmental, social and economic impact of such disposal is a concern not only for the developing nations in which it is often processed – under less than favourable conditions – but for the consumers who produce the colossal amounts of E-waste, the by-product of our insatiable desire for the newest and greatest technological development.
Unsustainable, marketing-friendly designs have become a beneficial business tactic of electronics companies. It is a common trend for consumers to replace their broken or outdated electronics with new devices regularly. As Hannah Elisha has noted, writing for the Chapman Law Review, around 372.7 million units of E-waste were discarded in the US in 2007. According to a study by Pike Research, quoted in The Economist in January 2013, the amount of E-waste produced worldwide is estimated to double over the next 15 years.
Through a variety of technological and marketing tactics, electronics corporations work to maintain high sales in order that their shareholders continue to profit. In comparison with consumer goods built several decades ago, it seems as though today’s products are expressly built to fail. Certainly, they invariably do within a few years of being purchased. Often, though only one component is broken, it is necessary to dispose of the entire product as it is either too expensive to fix, or simply not possible. What is more, even if it is possible to fix, the incentive to invest a little more money in the newer, faster, sleeker version of the product is great. In an effort to encourage sales, technology manufacturers like Apple release new versions of hardware so regularly that, should one be so inclined, multiple purchases a year are required to keep up. Still though, even should one not be so inclined, it is not long before a functioning phone or computer becomes obsolete as software and updates constantly evolve.
Consequently, between 20 and 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually according to Harmony Foundation. Unfortunately, electronics do not readily decompose and dismantling them safely is expensive and time-consuming. As a result, according to a story aired on CBCʼs “The National” in 2008, many poor and developing cities, where safety standards are not a concern, act as dumping grounds for e-waste. CBC’s Patrick Brown investigated several Canadian companies who claimed to safely dispose of electronic waste and found that, in fact, the majority is exported to Asia. The Harmony Foundation estimates that approximately 80 % of American recycled e-waste is in fact exported overseas.
The workers disassembling these electronics in India, China or Nigeria, among other countries, do so in subpar conditions. They are paid meagre wages and suffer from many associated health issues such as cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems. In a 2008 Greenpeace video on E-waste in India, one man, when asked if the work stung his eyes, reportedly said “the toxic fumes bother [my] eyes sometimes… [but] we do this so often, it no longer affects us.” Children are particularly affected by the toxicity of the surrounding environment. According to a report published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, 82% of the children tested in Guiyu, China had blood lead levels 50% higher than normal, a number deemed unsafe by international health experts.
Guiyu is a city where e-waste dumping has become central to the city’s economy. Time Magazine has noted that there are 5,500 Chinese companies in Guiyu in the business of processing approximately 1.5 million pounds of E-waste every year. E-waste is dismantled for precious metals, plastics, and any element that may be sold and reused. In a 2013 article, The Economist stated that over 100,000 people are employed by this industry in Guiyu, a significant portion of a city whose total population is only 132,000 people.
Because of this, almost 80% of the city’s economy and development are utterly reliant on imported waste despite the illegality of the business in China. While China has implemented laws against the importation of E-waste, businesses which have been fined and shut down have tended to reappear once in the same villages once the Chinese authorities have passed through. Furthermore, even if developed nations move to implement restrictions on the exportation of E-waste to developing nations, it is estimated that by 2018, as The Economist reported, poorer countries will be producing as much E-waste as developed nations. Regulations on exportations will therefore not suffice to put an end to the detrimental environmental and social impact of the issue.
Solutions to the problem of E-waste are by no means simple or straightforward. The sheer quantity of discarded electronics must be reduced; safety and environmental standards must be implemented and followed; manufacturers must make an effort to assemble products that are more environmentally friendly, last longer and are more easily repaired; and consumer mentalities must change.
Admittedly, many draconian measures must be adopted in order to ensure real lasting change. Still, one small yet promising step forward has recently been proposed in the form of a new concept for a mobile phone: the Phoneblok. Developed just last year, the Phoneblok is a phone built of removable “blocks,” each of which would contain the components corresponding to a single function of the phone. The objective of this phone is to correct the problem that the primary reason for the disposal of phones is due to the malfunctioning of a single component. If it were possible to easily replace faulty parts, fewer phones would be thrown away unnecessarily. If the entrepreneurs behind this idea are successful, perhaps we will be one step closer to mitigating the global detriments of E-waste.
Of course, the Phoneblok, though theoretically a good idea, has its drawbacks. It might make consumers’ feel better about their phone purchases, but this idea still does not address the multitude of other electronics we purchase on an annual basis, or the safety and living conditions of E-waste disposal workers in China. Nor does it address the careless exportation of electronics by Canadian companies or companies from other wealthier nations.
Governments and electronics corporations have a role to play in helping to solve this issue. Introducing legislation in both developed and developing countries could force corporations to manufacture electronics responsibly. For example, if the American government were to pass laws mandating the safe disposal of electronics at home, imposing heavy fines on companies who ignored them and exported their waste, perhaps more companies would incorporate these laws into their corporate culture. As a result, these companies could promote their products as “recyclable” and “environmentally friendly,” giving them an edge in the consumer market.
Additionally, it would be beneficial for developing countries to adopt similar legislation or to enforce the regulations they already have in place. This could force many companies to practice safer operations, and provide incentive for proper disposal techniques. They would even see improvements in their economy by enforcing higher wages, and mortality rates could be lowered through mandatory safety training.
Affluence is influencing our desire as consumers to constantly have the most up-to-date version of our technological gadgets. If we can stamp out this need, or convince manufacturers to produce longer-lasting phones, perhaps we may be able to reduce the waste generation at our end. There must be a way of combining government legislation, corporate culture, and improved manufacturing to solve this complex global development issue. Hopefully, creating awareness, and educating our peers will bring us one step closer to reaching that goal.
The Economist. The politics of ewaste: A cadmium lining. Jan 26, 2013. URL: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21570678-growing-mounds-electronic-scrap-can-mean-profits-or-scandals-cadmium-lining
Elisha, Hannah G.. Addressing the E-Waste Crisis, Chapman Law Review, 2010. URL: http://www.chapmanlawreview.com/archives/1736.
Environmental Health Perspectives. Elevated Blood Lead Levels of Children in Guiyu, and Electronic Waste Recycling Town in China. Mar 28, 2007. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1913570/
Greenpeace. Where does the e-waste end up?, YouTube 2008. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JZey9GJQP0&list=PL1E11A42011444D65.
Greenpeace. Where does e-waste end up? Greenpeace, 2009. URL: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/the-e-waste-problem/where-does-e-waste-end-up/.
The National. E-waste Dumping Ground, CBC News, 2008. URL: http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/TV+Shows/The+National/Technology+&+Science/ID/1305154853/.
Phonebloks. Our Story, Phonebloks, 2014. URL: https://phonebloks.com/en/about.
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. E-Waste, SVTC, 2014. URL: http://svtc.org/our-work/e-waste/.
Time Photos. China’s Electronic Waste Village, Time Inc, 2014. URL: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1870162_1822148,00.html.