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E-waste and Economic viability : Should we really blame developing countries?

by Ayesha Riaz | Sep 12, 2015

E-waste and  economic viability : Should we really blame developing countries?

 Since the birth of new technology following the post-war boom, our dependence on technology has grown exponentially. Since the rise of the personal computer in the early 1990's, our standard of living has continued to rise. With this, companies discovered how to build better and more efficient models of pre-existing items, which spurred the consumerist need to always upgrade and stay at the forefront of technology. However, not much thought was given as to where the discarded electronics would go.


Warehouse of Collected E-Waste Before Being Shipped

 Over the years these items accumulated to large amounts. At first they were simply thrown away with the municipal trash, but after the effects of battery acid leakage were revealed, the U.S., under the jurisdiction of EPA installed precautionary measures (known overall as the Universal Waste Act) to reduce the amount of contaminant that would potentially enter the landfills. This regulated the amount of electronic waste and where it would end up once it had reached its life's end. In only 1996 was the Implementation of the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed by Clinton, where it oversaw the recycling of nickel-cadmium and rechargeable batteries while also phasing out the use of mercury.

 While batteries were being given attention due to mercury, other electronics were harder to dispose of. Even if citizens did attempt to recycle old computers and televisions, the items had to be sent to specialized locations in order to be disposed of properly. Electronics are made up of various metals, plastics, glue, glass, much of which must be taken apart and separated by material in order to be recyclable. (Similar to the way food-stained cardboard is not accepted in recycling and certain plastics have different chemical properties and sometimes cannot be used together).

Similarly to municipal waste, states rarely dump electronic waste in the same area where it is consumed. Municipal waste functions under circumstances such as a lack of access to certain facilities that would recycle materials correctly. Not all states have highly specialized recycling plants and different states offer different rates per ton of garbage dumped, so it is sometimes economically better to travel across state lines. Crossing state lines have led to crossing country lines as well, like in 2003 when the city of Toronto, Canada began shipping its waste to a landfill in suburban Detroit and caused huge issues with the citizens of Michigan and legal jurisdiction of crossing borders for waste disposal.

 The distance between Canada and United States is relatively small compared to the other areas where the U.S. has been dumping its electronic waste overseas.  The regulation of exporting e-waste in large amounts (or at all) to other countries had been severely lacking in previous years. For example, while this practice of exporting e-waste to developing nations for profit had easily been in use for at least two decades, the first person to be jailed for this was just arrested this past month in the U.K. Joe Benson  had been illegally exporting tons of hazardous electrical waste to Africa, specifically to the countries of Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and the Congo. In return, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison. He was also previously convicted in 2011 for exporting hazardous waste to Nigeria and was in the process of appealing that conviction, while continuing to illegally export old televisions and refrigerators at the same time. The court authorized that the rules governing electronic waste are there to protect the environment and human life and that Joe Benson's actions did neither. The fact that he was sentenced was important to consider because it was the first time anyone's been sent to prison over illegal waste exports and environmental crime.

 If disposing of our electronics requires such care and regulation, perhaps generating them should require stricter regulations. Samsung Electronics, a global innovator in technology has been receiving publicity associated with worker deaths caused by chemicals used to build their products. Conditions in Samsung's older factories in South Korea have led to protests over cancers linked to chemical exposure issues. Samsung employees have been expressing these concerns for quite some time. In January 2013, Samsung's chip factory in Hwaseong a major hydrofluoric acid leak killed one working and injured four others, and recently, a carbon dioxide leak asphyxiated a worker, commenting on the standards of current factory conditions. In May of this year, Samsung Electronics apologized and offered compensation to those workers who suffered cancers linked to chemical exposure. Samsung's statement also included that the apology does not mean they acknowledge a link between the chemicals in the chip factory and the cancers, but that they are apologetic for the situation.

South Korean Activists at rally in 2010, protesting near Samung's Yongin semiconductor factory. 

Electronic waste itself is a symbol of a high standard of living and economic wealth. Ironically, it ends up in very concentrated regions of developing countries such as China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, and along the Ivory Coast. Most of the world's electronic trash (a symbol of a high standard of living and economic wealth ironically ends up in very concentrated regions of developing countries. The most targeted being China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, and along the Ivory Coast. Chris Carroll of National Geographic recalls Accra, the capital of Ghana, and the thick smoke from smeltering metals. He wrote a detailed article about children burning plastics off copper wiring, breaking copper yokes off television sets, releasing lead, cadmium and other neurotoxins and carcinogens into the air. Clearly, this is extremely dangerous for the inhabitant's health and the environment, and the countries cannot possibly be charged with ignorant unsustainable practices if their standard of living does not even allow them the luxury of choosing. In efforts to avoid these unfortunate circumstances, the Basel Ban was introduced in 1989, an international treaty that served to reduce hazardous waste exportation between countries, especially from the developed to the lesser-developed. Although it was enforced in 1992, the deplorable actions still occur.