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The Moral Dilemmas of E-Waste

By Guest Writer on March 21, 2014

Flickr User: Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale OndernemingenE-waste is growing. Computers, phones and other electronic devices are increasingly being discarded, as StEP’s e-waste world map shows. Planned and perceived obsolescence make us buy more of them, we discard them when we consider they are not useful anymore, but there are no adequate recycling mechanisms. As a result e-waste is piling up. The different approaches to e-waste management can be presented in the form a dilemma:

A) E-waste contains hazardous elements. Electronic components contain toxics and their manipulation without proper tools can easily release them, resulting in environmental damage and health hazards. Up to now electronics have been mainly used in the most industrialized countries and dumped somewhere else when they reached their (perceived) end of life. Although this trade geography is slowly changing, some countries continue to be known e-waste recipients. Ghana, for instance, is trapped between the desire to modernise by acquiring and refurbishing technology and the damaging effects of it when it’s not reusable. E-waste ends up at dumps, where children working for less than a couple of dollars a day endanger their health inhaling fumes and being in contact with hazardous materials. After all, they don’t have the technology to process that material properly. E-waste exports must therefore end. That’s why a strict ban like the one proposed under the Basel Convention makes sense (taken even further to forbid any e-waste trade), and why the work of countering illegal trade must be supported.

B) E-waste is a source of income and an incipient local industry. Metals and plastics can be scrapped out of old electronics and be sold in local markets for smelting and recycling, closing the materials loop. In Ghana families from the North send their kids to work in the dump because they value more the scarce but regular cash they get for the metals recovered than the irregular income from agriculture. For some Western countries it doesn’t make economic sense to manually remove the metals from e-waste, because it’s labour intensive, while for countries with lower wages it’s more suitable. In contrast, components like printed circuit boards can only be recycled in a handful of factories in the global North (and now in India too, by Attero) and therefore could be exported back, following a philosophy called “Best of Two Worlds” (PDF, 1Mb.). Improving the informal sector, including its workers’ health and safety conditions, could result in a local industry of e-waste recycling.

These are both sides of the moral dilemma regarding e-waste recycling from a global perspective. When we started developing the concept of Recyhub, a project aimed at developing low-tech, low-cost tools for informal e-waste recyclers, we were confronted with it. Should we stop our project straight away and devote our efforts to enforcing the ban? Or should we ignore it and focus on the small economies created by the sometimes illegal e-waste exports? We received this comment from a person close to the local administration in Ghana: “If we are supposed to end e-waste, why should we support your project that promotes it?

In order to find a way out of the dilemma we needed to deconstruct it a bit. E-waste flows are not only composed of exports, but increasingly as well of devices discarded in-country. So even if all exports were banned, informal recyclers would still be able to process the local e-waste, and the environmental, health and social issues would also have to be contended with.

It’s worth finding a solution that addresses both sides of the debate. Ideally, those supporting the banning of exports should acknowledge that e-waste is a source of income for a relevant number of people. On the other side, defenders of “e-waste as a source of materials” should demand better international regulations to ensure that this trade does not become covert dumping. They should also acknowledge that the present situation causes environmental damage, usually implies child labour, and threatens workers’ health, in places where the technology needed for proper recycling is not available. Recyhub’s approach wants to occupy the middle ground. We want to help empowering informal users with the use of simple tools that increase their income, prevent the dumping of toxic materials, and respect their health, no matter where the old electronics come from.

In order to end the negative side of e-waste a more thorough and global effort is needed, of which recycling should be only the last stage. First, modular designs that allow component upgrades while the device lasts for life would need to win the consumer market. Following that, materials would be sourced ethically, following the line already started by Fairphone. A new relationship with technology like the one promoted by The Restart Project would help extending the useful life of devices (and therefore reducing the demand of new ones). Finally, the material loop would be closed by recycling all materials, the path that Recyhub wants to follow.

The situation at the moment is as follows: the proposed e-waste ban forbids exports from supposedly “developed” countries (OECD) to “developing” ones (non-OECD), although trade between two non-OECD countries is not affected. E-waste keeps growing everywhere, with traditionally recipient countries now generating large quantities of their own old electronics. The situation in the informal sector is serious, and young workers damage their lives and environment for a precarious living. Would you go for A) banning exports as the root of all problems? Or would you choose B) and accept the situation as it is, looking for improvements? We’ve given our take, what would you do?

Written by Rafa Font, ICT4D MSc student at Royal Holloway U. London, researching e-waste via @Recyhub

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One Comment to “The Moral Dilemmas of E-Waste”

  1. parishilton says:

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