“We’ve found a great solution when dealing with your countries e-waste, give it to developing countries and poor people.”
by Roger Sandholm
The amount of manufactured electronics is a big growing problem. Today we use a lot more equipment that gets unusable faster than ever. This growing trend of throwing electronics away contributes to the amount of e-waste everyday. The way we consume electronic devices and things that contain electronic parts has changed in the last few years. But the way we recycle hasn’t changed that much. We know how too recycle electronics but there is no profit in recycling electronic equipment in a legal way. As an example recycling a computer in the US and Europe costs around 20 USD while in India the cost is only 2 USD (E-Waste in India – A Greenpeace short documentary, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3fOLL10yxY). Many countries sell and ships their e-waste too developing countries. There are laws, conventions and regulations too limit these shipments. The Basel convention is one of them set by the UN. It was created to control the movements and disposal of hazardous waste. It says that the receiver of waste must agree on shipments before it can be transported abroad among other things. Many countries that get these shipments of waste say that they never agreed too it and that they are unable to deal with this properly. This is often because manufactures have found a loophole in the convention. If you claim that the shipment of electronics are charitable donations or considered secondhand goods the convention is bypassed. It’s very hard for the developing countries too prove this and they don’t have the means too do anything about it. The laws, regulations and conventions against e-waste are often very good in countries that produce and consume electronic equipment. But the process of taking care and dismantle electronic products can be very difficult and expensive. So by shipping the waste to other countries you can bypass your own country’s restrictions. Developing countries doesn’t have these laws too the same extent as more developed countries do.
When the electronics arrive to it’s destination it’s often transported to unofficial recycling locations or sometimes even garbage cities. These are often located in the slum or where poor people live. The known locations are China, India, Ghana, Nigeria. Electronic waste consists of many pieces that need different ways of recycling. At first it seems simple but a simple piece of plastic can be manufactured in hundreds of different ways. Plastic is put together with a lot of chemicals that gives the plastic certain characteristics. This is also true for all other components of electronic equipment. A lot of the small parts have a lot of non visible heavy metals and toxics in them. At the unofficial recycling factories and shops, different types of metals and parts are sorted out and sold. The types of electronics are for example CRTs and circuit boards. The process of extracting components from electronic parts is not healthy or good for the environment. The parts are burnt or extracted through chemical reactions without safety-equipment, which affects the health of the workers and the environment. The fumes and substances contain PVC, lead, cadmium and flame retardants like PCB’s. These toxics are bad for your nervous system, hormones, kidneys, skin and many deceases can be directly connected with the chemicals. After the process of extracting the useful things the rest is often dumped in landfills or just out in the streets. The way of just dumping electronics and hazardous materials out in the open often pollutes the ground and nearby water supplies. These hazardous metals are brought into the environmental cycles which later makes it difficult to stop from spreading.
The people and sometimes children who do this job of recycling and reusing electronic waste is doing it because they don’t have much of a choice. Many of them know about the dangers involved when working. But they can do little about it. When you need the money you have too take the jobs that’s available.
Who is really responsible for the e-waste problem? Is it the manufacturers, sellers, consumers, recyclers, countries or who? When does the responsibility leave your hands. We must see to that we are contributing and pushing for sustainable solutions. The solution will be found when everyone is working together. A few companies are working on phasing out toxic chemicals from their products. Greenpeace has listed the biggest manufactures of electronics and how good they are at eliminating hazardous substances from their products, taking back and recycling their products and reduce the products climate impact. [see picture].
There has been a growing trend in marketing electronics as being green which is a good step forward in removing substances from the production. We as consumers have little options in dealing with our own e-waste. It’s hard too blame the consumers if there is no sustainable solution for the waste. An idea is to try the same principle as when buying pollution-rights. What if there was a way so that the consumers can pay for an environmentally friendly and healthy recycling process? Or maybe a fee system that when you buy electronics you pay for the recycling process as well.
The problem with hazardous substances in nature that affects the environment and the health of our family and friends has been going on for too long. As a good inspirational musician Marvin Gaye once wrote in 1971 “[…]Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east. Oh, mercy mercy me[…]”. Think about it.