If you are reading this, you likely live in a high-income country and own a mobile phone. We all live in a world where new technology is released regularly, and we consume more than we ever have before. With this, there has never been more waste. In fact, according to a UN report, around 45 million tons – the mass of 4,500 Eiffel Towers – of electronic products were thrown away in 2016 (Japan Times, 2017). This linear economy of buying and throwing away has many negative consequences on other humans and on the environment.
As an anthropocentric organization, the United Nations believes that humanitarian issues are most significant. Created after the second world war, its primary aims are to maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, deliver humanitarian aid, promote sustainable development, and finally uphold international law (United Nations, n.d.). These goals impact the UN’s global perspective, as the amount of e-waste conflicts with their sustainability goal in particular. However, despite the economic benefits from electronic products, the environmental impacts of e-waste are now becoming clear. Furthermore, the e-waste crisis is relatively recent, because it is only in the past few decades we have produced electronics to be discarded within a few years. As such, the UN’s perspective has been consistent over recent decades, and is also consistent with its perspectives on other waste issues and the systems in place. Consequently, several UN reports address the dangers of e-waste. The 2014 Global E-Waste Monitor (Balde et al, 2014) records about 42 million tons of discarded electronic products in 2014, with less than one-sixth being properly recycled (Japan Times, 2015). Additionally, according to UN News, only 67 countries are currently covered by national e-waste management laws (UN News, n.d.), and the volume of e-waste increased by 63% in the five years ending in 2015 (Bonn, 2017). Through these reports, the UN’s perspective is leading to awareness and a meaningful impact on this issue, driving future action.
A second, similar, global perspective is that of Houlin Zhao, the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Speaking out against the increasing volume of e-waste, he stated that “waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where the use of electronic devices is ever increasing,” (UN News, 2017). As Secretary-General of the ITU, Zhao is influenced by the UN’s mission, which is why his perspective fits with the UN’s (generally) anthropocentric beliefs. A result of Zhao’s perspective is the actions of the ITU; specifically, when it released a report about e-waste in 2015, with Zhao’s statement that the ITU “is well positioned to enact improvement in this arena.” (Economic Commission, 2015). The report contains information about the various stages of the e-waste process, introduces some general principles for managing e-waste, and suggests strategies and regulatory frameworks that have worked in the past for other countries with the same issue. It also contains analysis of the negative effects of e-waste on the environment and on human health (Economic Commission, 2015). This report proved to be hugely beneficial for Latin American countries dealing with e-waste, and has had a meaningful impact on several other countries with the same issue. Given Zhao’s position as Secretary-General of the ITU, a sub-branch of the UN, his perspective has already greatly influenced the actions of the organization, and this shows that Zhao’s position means even holding a perspective has a significant impact on the e-waste crisis.
High-income countries’ need to dump and recycle e-waste has driven the local perspectives of the people of Guiyu – a small chinese town. China has previously been called the “electronic wastebasket of the world” (Watson, 2013), and according to Ivan Watson, on every street in Guiyu, workers sit breaking down electronic products with hammers and drills on roads full of plastic, cables, wires and other e-waste. Despite the fumes let off from over 5,000 e-waste recycling workshops (UN University, 2017), e-waste recycling is the most important industry for many locals. In their perspective, the daily arrival of 15,000 metric tons of e-waste (Sommer, 2015) provides income for them and their families. “The reality is recycling waste has been Guiyu’s livelihood for decades,” said Zheng Jinxiong, deputy director of the Guiyu Recycling Economy Industrial Park (South China Morning Post, 2017). But there is a consequence – higher levels of lead in locals’ blood (Shantou University Medical College, 2014) and environmental contamination. However, there have been notable ecocentric actions to mitigate this. In 2013, an industrial park was opened for the e-waste recycling workshops, with enforced regulations on e-waste management – and in 2016, Guangdong’s Environmental Protection Department reported a significant improvement in air pollution levels in Guiyu. The park proved to be a great success, sustainably processing 180,000 tons of e-waste in eight months (South China Morning Post, 2017). In Guiyu, the locals have found a solution that works. But this is not the case everywhere.
Clearly, the e-waste crisis impacts people all over the world, even those far away from the source of manufacturing. Another local perspective similar to the locals of Guiyu is that of the locals in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, the world’s biggest e-waste dump. For them, e-waste is a source of economic opportunity whatever the costs. High-income countries exploit Ghana’s weakly-enforced environmental laws and economic struggles, dumping their e-waste – often illegally. (Wikipedia, 2018). Shunichi Honda, Programme Officer at UN Environment in Japan, explains that waste is exported to lower-income countries, where people are so poor they will engage in ‘backyard burning’ of the products to get the raw materials to earn a living. “Manual dismantling and recycling processes in some Asian and African countries are toxic to human health and the environment; such as open burning, incineration without any protective measures, open dumping, etc.,” says Honda (Lam, 2017). As so often happens, the most vulnerable are the most affected. Daily, thousands of children unknowingly expose themselves to toxic fumes and materials such as lead while searching through the waste in Agbogbloshie, rather than attending school (McElvaney, 2014). Despite earning only $2.50 each day, their motivations for scavenging in Agbogbloshie are purely economic. Injuries are common according to Kevin McElvaney, a reporter for Al Jazeera, with workers suffering burns, open wounds, eye damage, lung problems, and back problems, leading to chronic nausea, severe malnourishment, debilitating headaches, and respiratory problems. Toxic fumes harm the workers, many of whom die from cancer in their 20s (McElvaney, 2014). However, it is true that some economic benefits flow from Agbogbloshie. There is a flourishing second-hand market for old electronics, and Agbogbloshie provides economic opportunity for the scavengers, repairing, rebuilding, and selling old parts (Mahannah, 2017). Electronic products are reused, and the raw materials are recycled. However despite these benefits, the long-term health and environmental consequences are arguably more significant than the short-term economic gains. There needs to be tighter environmental laws to ensure the economic activity is safe for workers.
There have been many attempted solutions for the e-waste crisis. One such solution is the UN’s anthropocentric Basel Convention. Signed by 56 countries in 1989, it bans the dumping of waste in other countries, minimizes the amount of hazardous waste generated, and ensures e-waste is managed close to the source of production (Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2016). The significance of the Basel Convention comes in how it has shaped many national policies regarding e-waste trade. With regards to accountability, the Basel Convention shifts the responsibility from a vague, global one, back to the 56 signatories.
A second solution can be seen in Japan, in the new local Tokyo Medal Project of 2020, which aims to recycle an estimated $52 billion of e-waste (Japan Times, 2015), pledging to convert eight tons of material from obsolete smartphones (Lam, 2017) into 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 2020 Olympic Games (International Olympics Committee, 2017).
Despite the Basel Convention’s restrictions on the dumping of electronic products, a complete ban is not sensible. Rather, the expansion of technocentric projects like the Tokyo Medal Project provides new uses for old electronic products, leading to recycling rather than dumping. Projects such as these may seem small, but may lead to a chain reaction in solutions for the crisis. However, in order for this to happen, there has to be an understanding of the issue. In particular, the gap between those who benefit from and those who face the consequences of our e-waste trade must be narrowed, so that consumers living in high-income countries are made aware of the negative effects of our consumption. Given the complexity of this issue, solutions to globalised phenomena such as this are difficult to find and implement. One fundamental issue lies in the mind of the consumer – where there are expectations that we should always keep up with the latest trends, and we have out of sight, out of mind attitudes. Perhaps the ideal solution is to create long-lasting, sustainable products, dramatically reducing the sheer volume of e-waste and preventing this issue from developing further.
In the meantime, I personally believe we need to look at our e-waste management systems and reevaluate what we are doing to solve the issue. Though I lean towards the anthropocentric approach, I can see the value in all three environmental value systems. We are complex creatures, and the awareness of that has certainly had an impact on my perspective. I know that we are capable of deep thought and I believe mankind will be the ones to save our planet. My family has brought me up to believe that we can make a difference, which is the idealist ideology. It is almost romanticized – but as an individual I usually tend to take a more realistic, pragmatic approach. I am not religious – and so I have sometimes slipped into the mindset that we are small and our actions do not matter. But coming from a school that teaches individual actions do make a difference, I have been nurtured to believe that even the smaller things are important.
Specifically regarding the e-waste crisis, before I conducted research and gathered evidence, I had assumed that there was a shocking amount of waste produced. This assumption was based on everything I’d learnt about consumerism in the past. I’ve learnt how in our society, products are designed for the dump; to become obsolete after a few years of use. I see it happening around me – my friends will buy the new iPhone rather than continue to use their older models. Therefore, with this prior knowledge, when I found out the shocking statistics, I was not surprised. Why would I be surprised by statistics when I am surrounded by them every day? But when looking into this issue further I was surprised by some of the attempts to combat the e-waste crisis. We often do not hear of the efforts made; but if we do, they seem small when compared to the total waste produced, but the statistics on their own are striking. In 2016, about 20 percent of all e-waste was recycled (UN News, 2017). That may not seem like a lot, but nearly 9 million metric tons is a substantial amount by any reckoning. My perspective has, therefore, not changed but rather developed further having realized that the efforts are in fact having an impact. I have been reminded that the small efforts matter too – not every action or response to the issue has to be huge. That said, one could argue it was larger, global initiatives (such as the Basel Convention) which supported and motivated individual actions. It seems to me that local and global actions play equally necessary and complementary roles, with local actions providing motivation for larger global frameworks, which in turn inspire individuals to support further change.
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