Image Courtesy of Needpix.
Sharon Yin, Queen’s University.
In an era of rapid technological advancement, it has become almost unimaginable to live without our devices. We live in a world where smartphones and laptops have become essential for communication, where TVs and speakers have integrated themselves into regular daily routines, and where people cannot live without basic electric appliances such as microwaves and refrigerators. This reality is especially true in North America and the developed world – the average American household each own approximately 24 electronic products, spending roughly $71 billion in total on telephone and communication products in 2019.
Unfortunately, this level of consumption brings many challenges when it comes to the disposal of these products. In fact, electronic waste, or global e-waste, has become a significant global issue. A UN report found that in 2019 alone, “the world dumped a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste,” comparable to “the weight of 350 cruise ships.” At this consumption rate, the amount of global e-waste generated is “expected to grow by 8% per year.”
While the consequences of this large e-waste output may not be immediately felt in the developed world, it is certainly felt in much of the developing world. In many developing countries, e-waste is a prevalent issue and a significant part of people’s lives. This is perhaps a result of the illegal trafficking of e-waste from developed to developing countries. Trafficking is typically achieved through disguising e-waste as “second-hand goods” or is otherwise “misleadingly declared as metal scrap”. Furthermore, it is estimated that “40% of e-waste generated in the U.S., Canada, and Europe is exported to Asia.” This illegal trafficking of e-waste greatly reflects a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality that is harboured by wealthy countries such as the U.S. and Canada – after all, no one wants the toxicity generated by e-waste to accumulate within their own borders. This mentality is, however, extremely harmful for those on the receiving end of the e-waste trafficking chain. It significantly impacts the quality of life in several developing countries where e-waste is typically exported to.
These negative impacts on the quality of life for communities can be observed in Accra, Ghana, or in a region more commonly known as Agbogbloshie. This region in Africa has been effectively transformed into a toxic wasteland through the trafficking and dumping of e-waste. Toxins generated by its disposal methods pose significant health risks to surrounding communities, since the large amounts of lead in e-waste can “cause severe damage to human blood and kidneys, as well as central and peripheral nervous systems.” The extreme toxicity that originates from the burning of e-waste has also been known to cause respiratory problems, chronic nausea, and excruciating headaches.
Yet despite the many health risks associated with being surrounded by lead contamination, many in this region still choose to live and work in Agbogbloshie. Due to high unemployment rates in Ghana and surrounding regions, many have no choice but to actively seek work in Agbogbloshie to support themselves. A market has been created in regions like Agbogbloshie for the valuable metals found in scrapped electrical goods. Work of this nature involves “burn[ing] cables covered in plastic” and other discarded electrical items. Burning the plastic that encases electrical devices is done to extract the valuable copper found in many of these devices and appliances faster. However, this extraction process releases more toxins into the air and deposits harmful chemicals into soils in the region. This puts places like Agbogbloshie in a difficult situation, locking these communities in a deadly cycle in which dependency on the e-waste market for job opportunities and profits in the present could be the source of people’s future demise due to contamination and declining health. This deadly cycle is the unfortunate reality for those who work and live in Agbogbloshie.
In light of all this data and the known health implications of e-waste on these vulnerable communities, little effective action has been taken to control the illegal trafficking of e-waste. The Basal Convention, an international treaty banning e-waste exportation to developing nations, has been the only major policy to be implemented. However, there is a notable loophole in this treaty reducing its effectiveness – an “amendment allow[ing] the trade of second handed electronics.” This loophole is one that is utilized by many developed countries. Thus far, the laws and policies regulating e-waste trafficking have not been effective in reducing illegal e-waste trafficking. There is also little being done to protect vulnerable communities like Agbogbloshie from the toxins generated by e-waste, with little to no implementation of policies to ensure safe working environments. Greater investment in educational programs for workers about the health and safety of their working environments, as well as education on personal protection from these toxins, would be highly beneficial for many of these communities.
Oftentimes the convenience and comfortability associated with sticking to the status quo is what hinders people from embracing change. Complacency and fear of the unknown is the barrier that stops people from taking the leap towards greater things, “even when the status quo is bad.” This resistance to change readily applies to policy reform in terms of managing global e-waste. Society has grown complacent and has become accustomed to the way things have always been in terms of regulating e-waste traffic. Decade-old policies like the Basal Convention are still being used as primary solutions despite being ineffective.
In the case of e-waste management, acceptance of the status quo may be convenient for consumers and governments in developed countries, but it disproportionately harms vulnerable communities in developing countries. Just because an issue is not immediately felt on a personal level, does not mean that it does not exist. Small consumption habit changes can be made in our lifestyles to reduce the annual amount of e-waste generated. Small steps toward policy reform on e-waste trafficking laws can be made to better regulate the global flow of e-waste to better protect vulnerable communities who depend on that market for job opportunities.
Developing countries like Ghana are not a dumping ground for the rest of the world – it’s time to break the cycle of illegal e-waste trafficking and put an end to this “not in my back yard” mentality.
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Image Retrieved from Needpix. https://www.needpix.com/photo/398135/computers-monitors-equipment-cables-pc-monitor-trash-electronics-computer