Sunday, 27 December 2009

Electronic Waste

In previous articles, I have strongly criticized our focus on recycling, because reduction and reuse are several orders of magnitude more effective in reducing carbon emissions, and recycling can often use a great deal of energy. The way we recycle some products, however, such as computers, electronics and mobile phones, is even worse. In many cases, Western companies send these products to the third world, where workers are paid almost nothing to literally poison themselves and their communities.

We already know that our massive levels of overconsumption in the West are very damaging to the environment. Until recently, the United States was the largest carbon emitter in the world, and Western countries have been responsible for the vast majority of total carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Today, while China has surpassed the US in total emissions, Western countries are still contributing the most emissions, by far, on a per capita basis. As one chart shows, the US has per capita emissions 7 times higher than China, and 20 times higher than India. Some small Middle Eastern countries also show up at the top of the chart, but because of relatively tiny populations, this isn't statistically significant.

All these emissions, of course, are leading to accelerating global warming, which will result in massive extinction, loss of arable land, an increase in drought and flooding, the loss of vital glaciers, the death of our oceans, and rising sea levels, among other impacts. Most of these effects will be most strongly felt by the third world, and they will suffer the most, the soonest. Recycling is supposed to be one way to help alleviate these problems. Yet our throwaway culture is sending mountains of electronic waste to the third world for "recycling", which is instead dramatically worsening environmental and human conditions in these countries.

Companies charged with recycling electronic products or components often send these to the third world since it is obviously much cheaper than recycling them at home. In countries such as China and India, workers can be paid very little, and few, if any, safety or environmental regulations are in place. Workers here use toxic chemicals in order to extract components or minerals that have some value, in the process releasing, and exposing themselves, to yet more toxic substances. Large areas are covered in waste and pollution from these efforts is introduced into groundwater, often used for drinking or growing crops.

The following video shows an example of electronic waste "recycling" in China:

China's e-waste tragedy: poisoning the poor from Greenpeace East Asia on Vimeo.
Please note that this are extremely disturbing.

As the video notes, China now has some laws to prevent the import of toxic electronic waste. However, this is rarely enforced since it can be very profitable, and Western companies continue to ship in this waste. Also, the few environmental and safety regulations that do exist in these countries are largely ignored. Child labour is also often used, and these children are exposed to chemicals that can severely impact their development.

One suggested solution is that companies manufacturing these products use less toxic substances and use components that are more easily, and less dangerously, recycled. Some Western companies have indeed committed to such changes, but many have not, and that doesn't address the existing mass of products waiting to be thrown out and recycled. The only moral solution is for Western companies to be banned from shipping this waste to the third world, and for this tragic violation of human rights to end. We need to recycle our own waste.

Of course, the main reason this problem exists on such a large scale is our insistence on replacing electronic products with new ones on such a frequent basis. On average, we purchase new cell phones every 18 months, and American throw out more than 400,000 cell phones every day. People and companies replace their computers every 2-4 years. We also consume a myriad of other electronic products, from toys to gadgets to novelties, which are frequently replaced or discarded.

This level of consumption is simply insane. It is obviously unsustainable, especially when we consider we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. But beyond the long term consequences from all the carbon emissions generated in manufacturing and shipping these products, the human suffering caused by our dumping these products on the third world is unconscionable.

Of course, the solution is not to stop using computers, phones or other electronic devices. That is not only unrealistic, it is also undesirable. The Internet and phone networks have enabled communications on a global scale which has never been seen before, and this has many positive benefits. The world seems a smaller place, and our new connections allow us to better understand and relate to each other. New forms of communication have also allowed for more direct reporting and better access to information, bypassing traditional forms of media under government or corporate control.

What we must do instead, is to ensure that products have a much longer lifetime. Devices need to be manufactured without a deliberate design for obsolescence. They should be longer lived, more easily repairable, and have parts that can be readily reused. When no longer needed, they can be sold or donated to those who can still make use of them. These are tools that can serve a useful function, not fashion accessories, and we cannot afford to treat them as such. Some gadgets, though, are clearly superfluous and wasteful, and the resources devoted to their manufacture would be much better used elsewhere, or simply left in the ground.

Our society simply cannot continue to consume at such a voracious level. Our lifestyle is destroying the planet, and causing a great deal of suffering for some of the world's poorest people. We are paying people in the third world a pittance to clean up our mess. Our never-ending treadmill of electronic obsolescence is powered by their blood, their sweat, and their tears.

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