Digital Dumping: An Inside Look at E-Waste

Written by Christina Lorella

The iPhone, the Blackberry, the Android; American consumers are always on the hunt for the latest and the greatest electronics to add to their collection of toys.  The consumer demand for these constantly changing products is high, and the cost even higher.  Unfortunately, many people who have to pay the price never get a say in the matter.

It seems like every time we buy a new phone, a new computer, a new program, it becomes obsolete by the time we can figure out how to install it.  A newer, better, and more expensive version is already on the market, lessening the value and the appeal of versions released just prior.

There is a reason behind this often frustrating phenomenon.  Americans allow it, encourage it even.

Supply and demand are the driving forces behind our economy,and without one, the other would fail. As a result, manufacturing companies intentionally release technology knowing that shortly after a newer, more advanced version will be made available, and consumers will tap into it.

The products will soon be advertised in all forms of mainstream mass media,
manipulating Americans into giving up their “old” products, although still fully functioning, for a version that has one or two additional features.  The unwanted products will either be tossed or “recycled”, never to be thought of again.

The harsh reality is that these items are being shipped off in unthinkable numbers to toxic wastelands, called e-waste dumps, in developing countries. These digital dumping grounds are located primarily in Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan,India, and China.

The Basal Action Network, a Seattle nonprofit whose mission is to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis, reported that, “as much as 80% of the electronic waste sent to so-called ‘recyclers’ in the United States is not recycled in this country at all but instead gets exported to developing countries where labor is cheap and environmental and occupational standards are lacking.”

The initial shipments of used electronics were welcomed by many inhabitants, who believed that the items were generous donations from developed countries, intended to lessen the gap created by the digital divide.

Rather, an approximate 50 percent of the items, mostly computers, are unsalvageable upon receipt.

In Ghana, the working computer components are sold on the black market, often times to
people who rummage through old hard drives in search of personal financial information.  According to the U.S. State Department, Ghana has become one of the top sites of cyber crime in the world.

The rest of the material is thrown into endless pits of e-waste.  People of all ages then scavenge the grounds, smashing and burning items in hope of finding any scrap metals or copper to sell.

The burning of these toxic materials can cause serious, life threatening health implications and pollute both the water and the air.

Sadly, the Government Accountability Office estimates that a scrapped computer is only worth approximately $1.50 in commodities.

This problem extends far beyond Ghana, however.

The e-waste industry has become so large in China that the village of Guiyu in the Guangdong Province, is often referred to as “the e-waste capital of the world.”

It is there that more than 100 million tons of e-waste arrives from countries such
as the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea each year.  The effects have been
detrimental.

A 2002 report conducted by The South China Morning Post concluded that, “the air, land and water on which local people depend have all been poisoned. Local well water is already undrinkable, even after boiling…”

Although widespread media attention has been drawn to the issue through organizations
such as BAN and Greenpeace, little is expected to change.  Rather, the number of items shipped to these toxic wastelands is expected to rapidly increase over the next 9 years.

According to reports compiled by the United Nations Environment Programe by 2020 China’s “e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels and by 500% in India.  By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.”

“You know, it’s a hell of a choice between poverty and poison. We should never make people make that choice.” Jim Puckett, founder of BAN, said in an interview with CBS.  “Desperate people will do desperate things.”

E-waste polluting waters in Guiyu. Photo Credit to: John Biggs

Currently, there are no federal laws banning or regulating the exportation of American electronics.

If you live in the greater Seattle area and would like to recycle your electronics responsibly, please visit the homepage of InterConnection, a Seattle-based nonprofit that recycles computers and laptops at no charge.

“We are a non-profit organization providing refurbished computers to schools, low-income people and non-profits around the world,” Interconnection reported.

The Interconnection policy is to export zero electronic waste.  Rather, the organization refurbishes computers and offers them at little to no cost to nongovernmental organizations both locally and internationally.

Additionally, Interconnection offers free hard drive wiping services to protect your personal information from reaching the hands of criminals.

A similar program, designed by Global Visionaries own, Brennan Freed, will be made available at Chief Sealth High School in the near future. Freed, working in collaboration with Ashoka’s Youth Venture, is in the process of implementing Learn2Build, a computer club that will use donated parts to rebuild computers. These computers will later be redistributed to students in need. We will provide more information when the program launches.

For those of you were live outside of the greater Seattle area, please click here for a full list of nationwide e-steward recycling centers.

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