Electronic waste ruins the lives of people in developing countries Eunice Lam
Technology advancement brings the problem of electronic waste. The number of obsolete electronic items rises every year. However, the reuse and recycling rate in the United States is low. Consequently, the wastes are shipped to developing world and it seriously ruins the lives of citizens in developing countries. It also harms the United States in social aspect. Action must be taken promptly. To tackle the problem, the government should adopt both regulatory and reward policies. Also, education to students and community is needed to raise awareness to the e-waste problem. Finally, everyone in the States needs to make commitment on reduce, reuse and recycle. They need to make wise decision when buying or damping electronic products.
Electronic waste ruins the lives of people in developing countries
While all of us are discussing the latest model of electronic products excitedly and disposing our obsolete electronic devices without a thought, the recycling workers in another side of the world are struggling between penury and poison.
From the statistics of EPA, the United States produced 3.16 million tons of electronic waste in 2008 and the amount of e-waste is rising every year. Since the U.S. has banned disposal of e-waste to landfills and it is expensive to recycle the trash in local factories, the e-waste is often shipped to developing countries. Disassembly of useful materials from electronic wastes is a lucrative business in developing countries. Thus, poor people in developing countries choose to work in recycling facilities even though they are well aware of the potential danger to their own bodies and to the environment. The living environment in developing countries deteriorates every day due to our selfish behavior. The problem of e-waste is so alarming that action must be taken promptly. Cooperation, legislation and education are the key to tackle this problem. Meanwhile, all to stakeholders should come together to work on all the preventative and remedial policy.
There are several causes of the current situation. First, there is no appropriate law to control the electronic waste.E-waste disposal is harmful to environment, but it is not feasible to reuse and costly to recycle safely. At the same time, there is no federal mandate e-waste recycling. The United States isn’t taking their obligation even it has signed the Basel Convention with Haiti and Afghanistan. Manufacturers are allowed not implementing any environmental friendly design or take-back program on E-waste (although a few states have taken their initiative to set up their own law) (Carroll, 2008). As a result, people choose to use the most economical way to handle the problem – ship the waste to developing countries.
Additionally, with the advancement of technology, new products are pushed to the markets every day. People try to pursue for the latest model of electronic to enjoy the material comfort brought by the innovative products. They dispose the obsolete electronic products more and more frequently. Therefore, the number of electronic products rises every year and the amount of e-wastes shipped to developing countries increases accordingly.
Apart from that, the problem can also attribute to the ignorance of citizens. When people want to dispose their electronic wastes, they simply sent their e-waste to any recycling center without knowing how the companies recycle the wastes. They misunderstand that dropping the waste to recyclers means they can be recycled safely. However, the recyclers often sell the electronic appliance to brokers who ship them to foreign countries (Carroll, 2008). In other words, people who damp their electronic gears to irresponsible recyclers are one of the culprits of the e-waste epidemic too.
Indeed, the trans-border movement of electronic wastes causes extensive harms in environmental, health and social aspects. First, it seriously pollutes the environment of developing countries and poses health threat to citizens there. Electronic products are made by some toxic materials. In Cathode Ray Tube Monitors, it contains lead, cadmium, mercury and phosphorus (Michaidet al, 2011) that are poisonous. As the majority of the recycling facilities in developing countries like India in are performed by unregulated backyard settings (Sinha, 2008), these poisonous substances are often leak to the environment. For example, the leakage of heavy metals may contaminate underground water and cause serious pollution to the environment. Meanwhile, when humans are exposed to these heavy metals, their nervous system, blood system, digestive system and kidney system will be adversely affected (Golub, Mari S., ed. 2005).The citizens, especially the workers have suffered a lot due to the recycling industries of e-waste.An reporter of National Geographic, Chris Carroll went to Ghana to investigate the life of local workers who live and recycle tons of electronic wastes from overseas. Workers are living with choking smoke and they can feel that their heads, chests and nosesare not functioning well (Carroll, 2008). In Guiyi, China, there is similar situation.Workers are using bare hands to extract the useful metals from e-waste. Nearly 90% of the workers experience “neurological, respiratory, or digestive abnormalities” (Electronic Waste Dump of the World: Guiyu, China, 2011).
In social aspects, the workers in the unregulated factories are often working under unfair and unsafe conditions while some may even involve women and child labor (Hieronymi et al, 2012). Their labor welfare is being deprived in that they cannot receive reasonable reward after their hard work. In Guiyu, workers can merely earn $8 per day (Electronic Waste Dump of the World: Guiyu, China, 2011). Worse still, if their health is harmed permanently due to their unsafe working environment, they cannot receive any compensation from the company.
We can never underestimate the social harm of electronic wastes practice in the United States. Since the United State is the one who keeps shipping the e-waste to developing countries to maximize their profit, they are the culprit to these unfair situations. The reputation of the United State is affected that the United State is now notorious in building their prosperity on the pain of developing countries. In an article, “Why People Hate America: A Summary of Anti-Americanism,”Vexen Crabtree pointed out that the pollution problem due to the short sighted vision of the U.S. people has become one of the reasons of people’s hatred of America. Bianca Jagger also mentioned that “…as the USA fails to take responsibility for its own pollution it really annoys a lot of people worldwide”(2001). Being the biggest polluter in the world, United States has lost its reputation of a good nation and it may cause social problems like racism and terrorism.
Facing these serious threat, government and businessmen cannot turn a blind eye to the problem. Business parties put their focus on profit making while government puts effort into on economic development.They see handling electronic waste as spending extra money and effort on a thing that is not that urgent. Is it really a waste of money and effort? In short term, the answer may be “yes,” but a government of company with long term vision will definitely say “No.”
There are numbers of manufacturers understand this concept to expand their business. For instance, a global electronic manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard (HP) takes the responsibility of recycling their electronic products. Representative of HP pointed out that their company gains invaluable reward from the recycling process that they understand more about their product and it reduces the cost of their products (Watkins, 2006). Moreover, having an image of “Green manufacturer” could boost the sale of a company’s product. In response to the growing concern over environmental protection nowadays, a number of company start to use “green marketing” as a selling strategy to expand their business. The success of HP can prove that a company can gain even more benefits if they pour resources into environmental protection practice.
As for the government, they should know that “Prevention is better than cure” from the previous tragedies. A healthy society should have a sustainable development. Although they can save some expenditure at this moment, they may need to spend a lotof money more the remedy the health and environmental issues later. For example, an article “High-Tech Trash” written by Chris Carrol mentions that the U.S. shipped the waste to developing countries and the toxic materials from the waste are coming back to U.S. because a lot of products in the U.S. are made in developing countries. In this way, the citizens may suffer and more cost is needed in medical expenditure (Carroll, 2008).
Conspicuously, the problem of e-waste is worth paying attention to. To get into the root of the problem, it requires the joint effort of all stakeholders: the Federal Government of United States, government of developing countries, Electronic Manufacturers, consumers, educators and media.
As for federal government, there are two approaches to the problem: regulation and reward policy. For the regulatory measures, the federal government needs to implement new legislative policy. Take an example; Germany has adopted a new law on e-waste in 2012. With the new policy, electronic companies have obligation to collect e-waste from customers. Also, the government requires all the exporters to provide a certification if they want to ship the electronic items to foreign countries (BBC News, 2012). The United States should implement similar measure to ensure business sectors are taking their responsibility and exporters ship the trash to safe facilities in developing countries. Moreover, the government can use economic incentives as a way to cause citizens commit more on reduce, recycle and reuse. For instance, they can impose an “e-waste tax” that charge citizens certain amount of money per unit weight of electronic wastes disposal. In Denmark, the solid waste dropped by a third after imposing a “waste tax” on household and industrial waste from 1987 to 1998 (Andersen and Dengsoe, 2002). When the same policy applied to electronic waste, it is believed that citizens will commit more on reduce, recycle and reuse if they need to charge extra money for their waste disposal.
Regarding reward policy, in order to encourage the manufacturers that pour resources into environmental friendly product research, the government can adopt a reward system. A Nobel Prize of economics winner, Robert Sollow believes that innovation is the best way to conserve our environment (Kemper, 2012). Therefore, it is possible for the government to give reward or subsidy any scientific research on using harmless substance in electronic products or safe but economic recycling method of e-waste. Besides, the government can launch a “green manufactures logo scheme” that manufactures with green practice are allowed to put a “green logo” in their store. When customers see that logo, they know part of the value of the goods come to environmental protection.
While legislation only gives manufactures and consumers extrinsic motivationto solve the e-waste problem by avoiding any penalty, reward and education give them instinctive motivationto people to reduce the negative effects of e-wastes and this instinctive motivation would probably has a more long-lasting and extensive effects. To achieve this, the educators should help spread the message of the current situation and possible solutions of electronic waste problem in schools. Schools can put the electronic waste problem into part of the curriculum of general education to let students aware of the harmful effects of shipping e-waste across the border. Also, they can ask students to do a project on the problem, making them aware of the problems and stimulate them to think of the solutions. Talks, workshops and other promotion activities can be held in school too. Students need to know that they should choose electronic products from green manufacturers and recycle, reuse and reduce electronic wastes. Students are also encouraged to tell their parents, relatives and friends to choose and dispose electronic wastes wisely.
Besides, media can contribute to the promotion of e-waste problem to the community. Sometimes, citizens don’t mean to harm the lives in developing countries. They just don’t know how their wastes are treated by recyclers. Media can help by filming documentary of recycling factories in developing countries to tell the stories of lives of the workers. Moreover, they can reveal the stories of unscrupulous manufacturers and recyclers as media always play a big role in monitoring the society. This can be seen in the Foxconn Technology Company scandal in China few years ago. Foxconn Technology Company mainly manufacturers Apple’s products in China’s factories. After the extensive report of the inhuman policy of Foxconn, the awareness on unreasonable treatment to worker in developing countries has significantly risen. The Apple Company faced an unprecedentedly great social pressure after the scandal. This incident perfectly demonstrates the power of mass media.
Education and legislation is not sole way to solve the problem. It also greatly relies on the cooperation of every citizen in the States. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of wastes recycled tripled from 1999 to 2007. Surprisingly, the percentage of e-waste recycled only has a small rise. In other words, as the number of obsolete electronic trash increase drastically, the recycling rate cannot catch up with the waste production rate (Table 1). Therefore, if costumers think twice before making any replacement of old electronic items, the burden of recycling will much reduced. Table 1: E-waste Management in the United States
*Source: Environmental Protection Agency
In addition, citizens hold their right to choose electronic manufacturers and recycler when they buy and dispose their electronic appliances. They can choose to purchase electronic goods in manufacturers with green practices and dispose their e-trash to recyclers with proper documentation of where and how they handle the wastes. By doing so, the companies will gradually adjust their policy into an environmental friendly one so that their sales can be boosted.
A study from E-Waste to Resources, made an estimation that electronic trash from old computers will have raised by 5 times from 2007 levels in India, and by 2 to 4 times in South Africa and China that by 2020. Meanwhile, there will be 7 times more and 18 times more old cell phones in China and India respectively. Living in the same planet, the United States can never escape from the negative effects of “E-waste Mountain.” Sadly, the Society nowadays tends to focus only on convenience and profits. These short term benefits may give us better lives now; however, if sustainability is neglected, we have to pay an unbearable cost in the future. The solutions are in our hands, we should take action before it is too late. Last but not least, all the related parties need to come together to discuss all the possible solutions with no more delay. For the people living in the choking smoke produced by “e-waste Mountain,” one day is still too long to them.
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