What is E-Waste?
What do you end up doing with your old cell phone when you accept a free upgrade from your mobile provider? Who receives all of those out-of-date computer monitors and CPUs when institutions or manufacturers decide it’s time to do a major update? Where do old ‘tube’ televisions go when they die? Well, it sure isn’t heaven. If you live in a developed nation, these are questions you properly don’t ask yourself too often. Although, these are some questions we should be asking our policy makers and ourselves each day we use a piece of media electronic technology. These discarded electronics end up in landfills and incinerators if not recycled properly here at home or they are most likely shipped overseas to developing nations to bear the brunt of recycling and stripping these items for parts and materials (Miller 2).
E-waste is the shorthand for electronic waste, which is any shape or form of technology comprised of information and communications technologies (ICT) and consumer electronics (CE) that is damaged and/or obsolete and is then discarded (Maxwell and Miller). ICT’s and CE’s can include but are not limited to computers, cellular telephones, televisions, video and audio equipment, MP3 players, and video game consoles—common items entrenched in today’s culture (Maxwell and Miller, Babu, Basha, Parande 307). In general, any piece of technology that relies on electric currents or electromagnetic fields and reaches the end of its useful life becomes e-waste (Babu, Basha, Parande 308). E-waste is a rapidly growing and devastating epidemic that is leaving a horrific mark on our environmental state, as well as severely harming millions of people.
We live the “‘good life’ of high-tech luxury” where it is socially acceptable to live a high-consumption lifestyle in this “digital democracy” (Maxwell and Miller 22-23, Bozak 218). We encourage a high waste output of electronic media by living this high-consumption lifestyle, and vice versa: “what has allowed digitization its democratic assumptions is the relative expendability of its images and material components” (Bozak 224) and “[t]he cinematic garbage produced by digitalization and electronic waste is represented in an equally proportioned glut of images” (Bozak 225). It is a vicious cycle.
A major contributing factor to this high-consumption ideology is that newer is better; we are constantly updating our electronic media whether at home, or in private or public enterprises. When updates and upgrades do become available, for instance, Apple’s release of the iPhone 6 in late 2014, millions of previous models are either discarded or tucked away; 12 months is the average lifespan for a cellphone in America before being replaced (Maxwell and Miller 346). Maxwell and Miller also state that half a billion old cellphones are sitting in drawers while over 130 million cell phones are added to landfills each year (346). As well, in 2009, we witnessed a major transition in broadcasting when the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting was implemented, contributing to “270 million outdated analogue TVs hitting landfills across the nation and the world” (Maxwell and Miller). This is evidence from only two sectors.
Newer is not always better and it does not always last long either. The disposal rate of obsolete equipment is rising due to the growing trend of the intended lifespans shrinking in electronic technology. 2005 central processing units (CPUs) last only for a mere 2 years in comparison to their 1997 counterparts that could last from 6 to 8 years (Babu, Basha, Parande 308, Bozak 218). If media technology does not bite the dust due to age, compatibility and readability will eventually catch up to them in obsolescence (Bozak 226).
Here are some scary numbers: for the whole world to enjoy an “American lifestyle,” we would need three planet Earths (Maxwell and Miller 335). U.S. residents alone owned approximately three billion electronic devices in 2007 (Maxwell and Miller 339). This statistic has most likely grown. Over 180 million personal computers were sold worldwide while over 100 million obsolete PCs were discarded in 2004 (Babu, Basha, Parande 308). Approximately 2 872 000 tonnes of plastic and 718 000 tonnes of lead along with 287 tonnes of mercury were contained in the 500 million PCs that reached the end of their useful lives between 1994 and 2003 (Babu, Basha, Parande 310).
Burtynsky, Edward. China Recycling #9: Circuit Boards. 2004. Edward Burtynsky. Photograph.
We have collected and disposed an astronomical amount of e-waste in a short period of time. About 70 percent of heavy metals in the world’s landfills come from electronic waste (Maxwell and Miller, Babu, Basha, Parande 310). “Pollution from today’s electronic media includes highly toxic contaminants […] that can enter groundwater, pass into soil, then return to waterways, and heavy—metal sources like lead, zinc, copper, cobalt, mercury and cadmium” (Maxwell and Miller). These pollutants are disguised in numerous ICT/CEs that we use and discard on a daily basis. We can find lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, in cathode ray tubes (CRTs), computer batteries, capacitors, liquid crystal displays (LCDs), circuit boards and other parts of electronic goods (Thomas 39). There are typical components in computers and televisions but the chemical and metal recipes for each and every piece of technology varies. The unknown is probably the most unnerving aspect of all this. We do not have the resources or time to properly identify all toxins, chemicals, metals or plastics that are found and used in all electronic media. The sheer numbers nearly make it impossible to fully learn the impact this will have on the environment and humans (Babu, Basha, Parande 314).
We are strictly speaking on e-waste—the aftermath of electronic media technology. We have yet to look into the entire lifecycle of a piece of media technology. Nadia Bozak poetically reminds us that these items will break but they will not breakdown (218). And when they do become obsolete, the negative environmental impact from production to disposal will clearly outlast the physical electronic as Maxwell and Miller put it:
The ecological context of electronic media technology includes environmental burdens of energy generation and consumption throughout a medium’s life cycle, from production to consumption and disposal, its chemical basis the inputs from the Earth (via mining, drilling, logging, etc.), and outputs into air, land, and water. […] The effects of these inputs and outputs outlive the medium’s existence through deforestation, CO2 emissions, irreparable harm to habitats, land and water poisoned by PCBs, dioxin, and heavy metals and toxic chemicals, etc.
We have yet to fully learn the catastrophic impact these toxic components will have on the Earth’s environmental state. It is safe to say that we must worry and rectify this swiftly. In regards to the effect e-waste has on our health is profound.
Export & Exploit
The dismantling that is carried out in these mainly informal economies is directed towards the recovery of copper, gold, silver, platinum and other metals. Toxic chemicals such as cyanide are used to recover these metals and the open smelting process results in the release of noxious fumes. Any waste arising out of these processes is dumped into surrounding areas causing serious environmental pollution and increasing health risks to the general population (Thomas 39)
Majority of the e-waste intentionally winds up in African and Asian cities and other underdeveloped regions. Maxwell and Miller remind us of nineteenth century history when the “urban rich could barely tolerate the everyday sight and smell of their own waste” (104). Even today in the digital age, we enjoy the luxuries and pass on the garbage; we make the mess and they have to clean it up. Here are some simple and hard to disgest facts: “a hundred thousand PCs entered the port of Lagos, Nigeria, each month in 2006. California alone shipped about 20 million pounds of e-waste last year to Malaysia, Brazil, South Korea, China, Mexico, Vietnam and India.” As well, “[m]ost electronics recycling is done in the Third World by pre-teen Chinese, Nigerian, and Indian girls, picking away without protection of any kind at discarded First World electronics in order to find precious metals, then dumping the remains in landfills (Maxwell and Miller).
Greepeace Video. “Following the E-Waste Trail.” Online video clip. YouTube.
There have been conventions, policies and laws set in place to control a few and protect many from the exportation and exploitation of a nation’s e-waste. However, the 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Disposal has been numerously ignored by the United States and U.K. and they continuously ship several tonnes of e-waste to some of the poorest regions around the globe (Maxwell and Miller). This is done with ‘good intent’ to prevent e-waste from piling in landfills and incinerators, so policy makers fall back on the rhetoric of “‘recycling’ to justify the free trading of hazardous waste materials to the developing countries of Asia, where labor is cheap and health and environmental restrictions are lax” (Babu, Basha, Parande 311).
Digital technology’s disposability facilitates further innovation and development and is enabled by the offshore labor that not only manufactures digital products but also, once industry has declared them obsolete, assumes the dangerous job of dis-assembling and then recycling discarded hardware (Bozak 224).
The ‘pros’ are completely outweighed by the horrific ‘cons:’ “[e]-waste generates serious health and safely risks for salvage workers: brain damage; headaches; vertigo; nausea; birth defects; diseases of the bones, stomach, lungs, and other vital organs; and disrupted biological development in children (Maxwell and Miller 104-105). These grotesque issues are barely recognized in mass media, media-production research or policy circles due to the lack of “monetary and social influence” these “informal working class” workers have (Maxwell and Miller 106).
Burtynsky, Edward. China Recycling #12: Waste Sorting. 2004. Edward Burtynsky. Photograph./Burtynsky, Edward. China Recycling #22: Portrait of A Woman In Blue. 2004. Edward Burtynsky. Photograph.
A Green Future?
There is still hope. Bozak report on organizations such as The Re-Use People, who focus on e-waste and the carbon footprint produced by the massively consuming film industry (220). She also references several films and documentaries to watch, such as Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Its intent is to “reinstate gleaning as a necessary social, economic and cultural practice capable of disrupting the patterns of over-consumption and waste that are at the heart of industrialization (Bozak 223). Maxwell and Miller and Bozak see the catch 22 sitting here. “Media technologies carry both promise and peril for the environment” (Maxwell and Miller 336). They can be harnessed to engage green consumers and cause awareness on these particular matters; yet, they also play their role in adding more toxins and generating more e-waste (Bozak 222, Maxwell and Miller 66).
As consumers, we have an active responsibility to contribute to as many possible efforts at home and around the community. First hand, we must control our appetite for consuming all media technology and learn to be content and when to say when. Then, we must learn and follow all protocol to properly dispose and recycle electronic media and other ICT/CEs. All feeble or grand attempts provide a better chance for growth and change. Though, change has to come from the top down with our policy makers enforcing laws and policies, and monitoring all aspects of production and disposal of ICT/CEs (Maxwell and Miller 30). Then when the major corporations oblige to these new green laws and policies, we will see positive change and growth.