The E in Waste
Modern times mean modern evils, e-waste being one of the worst. The problem is we don’t necessarily realise the scale of the problem.
The issue of electronic waste or “e-waste” is now well known and firmly established within the context and lexicon of environmental management and sustainability. We all know (or at least should know) that there is an ever-growing consumption of electronics and subsequent disposal of e-waste, which, according to the US Congressional Research Service, includes: “obsolete, broken, or irreparable electronic devices like televisions; computer central processing units (CPUs); computer monitors (flat screen and cathode ray tubes); laptops; printers; scanners; and associated wiring.” And also includes every other conceivable electronic appliance or device. The problem is vast and seemingly out of control.
I purposefully made use of the word “consumption” in the first paragraph, rather than the word “use”, precisely because it is our profligate consumerist society, in which consumption is king, that has fuelled this enormous rise of e-waste within, literally, the last two decades. Consumption breeds waste. At least that is the way it is in the current socio-economic paradigm of today’s globalised, super-wasteful economy.
There has of course been e-waste ever since electronic products and gadgets were invented, but nowhere on the scale that has emerged with the advent of the so-called Information Age within just a relatively few years, and the contemporary mania with electronics that is its cornerstone.
THE SCALE OF THE PROBLEM
It’s a huge problem. In late 2012 Scidev estimated that up to 50-million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally each year. The Basel Action Group (BAN) states that, “E-waste is the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world. It is a crisis not only of quantity but also a crisis born from toxic materials … that pose both an occupational [for those working directly with this waste] and environmental health threat.”
The name of Basel should spark recognition in savvy environmental/SHE practitioners, as it is the Basel Convention on the Control of the Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal that is most pertinent in international law with regard to the global menace that is e-waste.
As mentioned above, the consequences are both environmental and health-related. As BAN states in a seminal 2002 study, “The open burning [of electronic goods to extract ‘precious’ heavy metals], acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia’s poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born [sic] by the (mostly) Western consumers or by the waste brokers who benefit from the trade.”
And it is not only a problem of “developing” countries. Scidev reports that countries like Thailand and the Philippines are beginning to discard significant amounts of e-waste. Although I have been unable to independently verify this, it has been said for some time that South Africa is the biggest exporter of e-waste in Africa. This wouldn’t be hard to believe, however, given that it is the largest economy on the continent, and that would invariably mean generation of e-waste, making it very likely that some of it would be exported.
The two biggest digital dumping grounds in the world remain China and India, with countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire being the most noted African recipients of this toxic waste. Hair-raising studies on the health and environmental ravages of e-waste abound on the Internet.
And why is this waste so toxic? Because, as Keith Anderson of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) explains, “Toxic or hazardous substances in electronic waste are typically heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, among others. Electronics also contain small amounts of gold, silver, copper, platinum; all precious metals that are in finite supply, along with plastic, lead containing monitor glass and other metals.” Other ingredients in this toxic soup include beryllium and (highly carcinogenic to both humans and many other living species) brominated flame retardants. All of them just terrific for the environment and our collective health once disposed.
Too often the e-waste doesn’t even have to be exported – it’s simply dumped in a local landfill or fly-tip, meaning that local councils, waste management companies and local communities must grapple with the issue. As Jonathan Shamrock of the Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa (IWMSA) states, “E-waste should by no means be discarded with your usual rubbish and should always be taken to a verified e-waste disposal point.” You’d think that would be stating the obvious, but go visit a local landfill site and prepare to have your eyes seriously opened at the sheer scale of e-waste lying dormant and leaching chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and groundwater.
WHY THE PROBLEM EXISTS
As ever, economics plays a pivotal role in this international trade in this toxic waste. As BAN notes, “E-waste exports to Asia are motivated entirely by brute global economics. Market forces, if left unregulated, dictate that toxic waste will always run ‘downhill’ on an economic path of least resistance. If left unchecked, the toxic effluent of the affluent will flood towards the world’s poorest countries where labour is cheap, and occupational and environmental protections are inadequate. A free trade in hazardous wastes leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison – a choice that nobody should have to make.”
The Basel Convention of 1994 aimed to introduce a system for controlling the import, export and disposal of hazardous wastes. Just a year later the convention was amended to specify only a partial ban, proving that many nations had decided that it would be acceptable to only reduce, not completely ban, such exchanges. This would be especially true of e-waste. How could one begin to eliminate e-waste and the trade thereof in the first place? All of which does beg the question: why didn’t manufacturers of electronic goods think of this before using toxic materials in the first place? After all, the vast majority of these electronics have proliferated in very recent times, when they should have known better. Once again, the incredible short-sightedness of human technology and development (not to mention greed) comes to the fore.
What to do?
• Understand what it means to be a throwaway, consumerist society. When we know who we are, we can better address the problem, and e-waste is directly correlated to our conspicuous consumption. We are all culpable in this day and age.
• Use and then reuse electronics for as long as possible. Donate wherever possible to those who can make use of your “obsolete” electronics. Ironically, this is the one type of waste where traditional recycling is especially undesirable.
• Take the time to dispose of your e-waste, if you need to, in the most ethical, least toxic manner possible. Contact organisations like eWASA and the IWMSA if you need advice. After all, you generated the waste.
The social and cultural philosopher William Irwin Thompson stated, “Like a shadow that does not permit us to jump over it, but moves with us to maintain its proper distance, pollution is nature’s answer to culture. When we have learned to recycle pollution into potent information, we will have passed over completely into the new cultural ecology.” When it comes to our endless ability to generate e-waste, it’s unfortunately safe to say that we are very far from that “new cultural ecology.”
Vittorio Bollo has an LL.B in Law and Politics from the University of Birmingham (UK) and an LL.M in International Environmental Law from the University of Calgary (Canada). He has over 14 years of experience in the fields of environmental and SHE management, corporate governance and triple bottom line issues, and has a host of personal interests in many fields. He currently works for NOSA in R&D and training.