Ever ruminate over the implications of discarding your old electronic devices? Have you been curious enough to find out where and how these gadgets are being disposed of?
Well, for most of us, the answer would be a resounding ‘No’. While we continue to buy the latest that technology has to offer, a quick look at what happens during the ‘after life’ of our old gadgets is required.
Let us first trudge back in time (through heaps of metal, black smoke and oodles of wires) to see where it all began.
Emergence of the Information Age:
Armed with the greatest scientific findings and technological inventions, the 1990’s blossomed to life bringing in its wake the invention of the internet, World Wide Web and the email. Seeping into the DNA of society, the digital information culture shimmied its way in, thus revolutionising the way we operate.
Craze for the latest electronic and electrical devices soared sky high giving manufacturers an incentive to flood the market with newer products frequently, resulting in a short shelf life of older products.
Waste – Age: In with the New, Out with the Old:
The nonchalant ‘throw away’ culture that soon manifested as a resultant thereof coupled with the lack of awareness to consequence, subsequently gave rise to a new pile of junk – techno trash a.k.a ‘e-waste’.
Environmental Protection Agency reports that over 112,000 computers are discarded every single day in the U.S. alone amounting to 41.1 million desktops and laptops in a year.
In Europe, Germany discards the most e-waste in total, but Norway and Liechtenstein throw away more per person. As per UN Reports, Norway topped the list for worst per capita electronic waste in 2014.
Wait – There’s more!
According to studies made by the United Nations University, 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste was discarded around the globe. That’s 2 million more than the year before and as much as 50 million tonnes could be dumped each year by 2018.
As per the UN “If you loaded this waste in 40 tonne trucks and parked them bumper to bumper, it would stretch from New York to Tokyo and back again. Put it another way, it weighs around 110 times more than the Empire state building or 7 times more than the Great Pyramid of Giza.”
Electronic waste dumped in 2014 contained 300 tonnes of gold (about a tenth of global production) and thousand tonnes of silver, left unrecovered. If recycled properly, it could have been worth $52 Billion.
Palming off the problem
To deflect the sheer volumes of e-waste from piling up in their own backyard along with its pernicious effect, First World Nations began to ‘export’ the problem to poorer nations with no regard to the health and safety of workers and the environment, often in violation of International laws.
West Africa has experienced this first hand when shipments containing old computers began its descent into African soil under the pretext of donating old computers to bridge the ‘Digital Divide’. With time, they realised that unscrupulous exporters were disposing of ‘junk’ in the name of ‘second hand goods’ for a profit.
Basel Action Network
In March 2015, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and their Philippines-based affiliate organisation BAN Toxics condemned the Canadian government for violating the Basel Convention by refusing to repatriate over 50 40-foot intermodal containers, containing household trash that were illegally exported to the Philippines almost two years ago.
Shadow Economy: The Underbelly of Globalisation
With a constant gush of techno trash flowing into Asian , African soil along with e-waste generated on a domestic scale, scrap yards found that they could earn a living from the extraction of valuable metals (copper, silver etc.) giving rise to unauthorised recycling set ups and several landfills the size of football fields.
Lands once filled with lush greenery have turned into toxic waste lands with acrid smoke tarnishing the air and poisonous components leaching into the soil and nearby water bodies.
A stark portrayal of the aforementioned can be seen in Agbogbloshie, a former wetland of Accra, Ghana; one of the world’s largest digital dumping grounds for the US, UK, Netherlands and Germany to discard their electronic waste by the millions each year.
According to Green Cross Switzerland and Pure Earth (an international non-profit organisation dedicated to solving life-threatening pollution in the developing world) at least 40,000 people are exposed to lead poisoning in Agbogbloshie, Ghana on account of the burning of sheathed cables.
Unprotected workers, many of them being young children break open electronic products with as little as stones and primitive tools to scavenge for valuable metals that can be recycled. The rest is dumped into a river or burned, thus exposing them to toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium resulting neurological, respiratory, immune system disorders and several other diseases.
Alarmed? Not yet? Well, you should be.
The Association of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) reports that India produces nearly 13 lakh metric tonnes of electronic waste every year. Mumbai (96,000) tops the list in generating e-waste followed by Delhi-NCR (55,000) and Bangalore (52,000). “Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune find a place in the ladder, at 47,000, 35,000, 26,000, 25,000 and 19,000 metric tonnes per year respectively,”
The report also states that the United States (US) ranks highest in its share of importing e-waste to India at 42% followed by China at around 30% and European Union at around 18%; the rest 10% is from other countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan etc.
China: Not Far Behind
About 70% of e-waste generated globally is dumped in China. Toxic e-waste makes its way through domestic and international sources via Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Nanhai.
Studies indicate that Guiyu, China has the highest degree of cancer causing dioxins in the globe. Pregnancies are 6 times more likely to end in miscarriage. 7 out of 10 children are born with 50% higher levels of lead in their blood than children born elsewhere.
The Boomerang Effect: Back to the Source
The repercussion of our thoughtless actions will come back to haunt us. Even if your electronic devices get carted off to another part of the Globe, the detrimental effect caused thereof will follow you back to your doorstep.
Much of the world’s food supply comes from China, more so from the Guangdong Province; the very place where e-waste is “harvested”.
Scientists have also detected air pollution from China across the globe. Pollutants manoeuvre their way through long-range transport in the upper atmosphere, while moving pollutants such as mercury flow through ocean bodies to find their way back to other continents.
That’s Not All
The next time you throw away your computer, think twice. Remember all that junk that was ‘shipped’ off by traders into African soil? Well, it has brought Frankenstein to life.
One of the biggest sources of cybercrime in the world stems from Ghana and Nigeria. Organised criminals sometimes sieve through dumps in search of hard drives for personal information to use in scams.
In 2009, a team of researchers investigating e-waste disposal in Ghana for the PBS series – Frontline discovered that one of the drives that they had purchased from a scrap dealer for $40 contained unencrypted information from government contractor Northrop Grumman.
Contracts with the Defense intelligence agency, NASA and even Homeland Security have also found their way in the dumps of Ghanaian soil.
A Ticking Time Bomb: Actions do have Dire Consequences.
While it is natural to have the urge to possess the latest technology, we also need to be aware of how our actions affect our Planet and the People.
Let’s take our country for instance. India has about 800 million phone users; about 50 million of them are smart phone users. On an average a phone is discarded every 10 to 12 months, even before the end of life of a product, thus adding to the e-waste burden.
But while we are culpable for our actions, let us not forget that with ‘Planned Obsolescence’ being the name of the game, manufacturers are also deliberately producing gadgets with a restricted life span so that we buy a replacement sooner than later.
The next time you pick up a ‘smartphone’ with a built in battery, do pay attention to the life span of your product and be sharp enough to discard your gadget in a smart way.
So what can we do?
There will be a point when the Earth that we have mindlessly desecrated will retaliate at a cataclysmic scale. So even if it is too late to save our Planet, the least we can do is respect it and try to salvage what we have for our future generations.
Taking India for instance, educational institutions are the best places to create awareness in students at a young age. Governments too can play a huge role by enforcing stricter laws to protect the environment and workers, besides ensuring that manufacturing companies make it mandatory to have a buy back option for old products.
Encouraging e-waste management companies such as Karma Recycling, Attero, Cerebra Integrated Technologies and similar set ups by giving them a boost will go a long way in tackling the never-ending problem of e-waste.
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