E-Waste

Colin Orians


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Interview Participants
Technology advances rapidly and we are constantly replacing our electronic equipment. Whenever we move onto the newest iPhone model or disposable laptop, we generate electronic waste, also known as e-waste. E-waste is discarded electronic equipment, such as computers, televisions, and refrigerators. Each year we produce at least 14 million tons of e-waste globally.
Finding cheap ways to dispose of this waste is becoming increasingly difficult in developed countries. 80% of e-waste is therefore exported to developing countries where it is at least ten times cheaper to dispose of and regulations are more lax. This e-waste often ends up in landfills where improper and unsafe e-waste disposal and processing methods are employed,
resulting in water, soil, and atmosphere contamination and devastating human health effects. These problems are not isolated in any one area. E-waste pollution occurs on a global scale. One country in which the negative implications of e-waste is evident is China where an entire economy is sprung up around e-waste.
China is home to Guiyu, the biggest e-waste recycling site in the world. Guiyu is a city of immigrant workers. 80% of whom are engaged in e-waste processing. Lacking information and alternatives, they use crude environmentally unfriendly techniques like open fires and acid baths to recover precious metals. The remaining toxic waste acid is dumped into the soil or in waterways.
Workers have little protection accept for household plans against exposure to toxic fumes. The environmental and health impacts are severe. High levels of lead in the water make it unsafe to drink and toxic emissions from e-waste are spread to other regions by wind. Humans are exposed to these contaminates through ingestion, inhalation, and skin absorption
causing respiratory problems, cancer, and long-term damage to kidneys and nervous systems. In a 2008 study in China, researchers found that e-waste pollution may cause DNA damage within exposed populations, suggesting that there are other long-term effects that we aren’t aware of. A similar pictures emerges in Nigeria.
The rapid growth in electronic equipment production and consumption has resulted in about 50 million tons of computers thrown into waste dumps every year. When placed in landfills or even waterbodies even small amounts of toxic chemicals can contaminate the soil and water. E-waste has displaced communities whose farm land is no longer productive
because of the high levels of mercury, lead, nickel, and cadmium in the water table. The toxicity of Nigerian water bodies has made streams unsustainable for biotic life and has increased the spread of diseases and the number of deaths in communities living around e-waste dumping grounds. Additionally, some argue that environmental degradation caused by e-waste partly exacerbates the Niger Delta region conflict.
It is clear that irresponsible e-waste dumping practices continue to have crippling socio-economic effects on Nigerian communities. How do we address this problem? It is difficult to resolve because there are both environmental and economic implications to consider. E-waste travels along global trade routes.
Despite the dangers of accepting e-waste, developing countries are often eager recipients because of the associated monetary compensation. Ordinary citizens in many of these countries base their livelihoods of collecting and extracting electronic parts from dumping zones.
Developed countries justify e-waste export by falsely claiming that developing countries specialize in e-waste treatment and that they can use the waste as inputs in industrial and manufacturing processes. In reality developing countries are becoming e-waste dumping grounds. Any solution would therefore need to take into account the global,
environmental, and economic implications of the problem. The international community has tried to solve this problem with the Basel Convention, the first international treaty to regulate the flow of hazardous waste in order to halt the movement of e-waste from developed to developing nations. It holds e-waste exporting states accountable for environmental degradation
by compensating the countries whose environment are damaged by hazardous waste trade. Both China and Nigeria have ratified this treaty and have tried to address the growing problem. However, the e-waste trade continues through corruption and the exploitation of loopholes.
Ultimately, the international conventions only target the trade in hazardous waste constituting only one part of the solution. Reducing e-waste generation is also important. We can contribute to this on a personal level.
As private consumers we can: avoid buying new if the old model still works, support companies that are leaders in e-waste take back and recycling, and recycle all of our electronic equipment instead of throwing it away.
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