Have you ever asked yourself, “Where does my laptop go when it dies?” Far from a recycling centre in the clouds, the answer is more likely to be either a landfill, or one of the large-scale e-waste dumps that exist around the Third World. From places like Accra on the south coast of Ghana, to Guiyu in southern China, massive flows of e-waste are dumped each year, with both environmental and social impacts. I caught up with Dr Assa Doron from the ANU’s School of Culture, History and Language, who recently convened an international workshop titled, “World-Making and the Environment in the Asia-Pacific Region” to discuss the growing e-waste problem.
“It’s a loose category”, Dr Doron says, when asked what items actually come under the ‘e-waste’ label. It can refer to anything from the smallest phones to the massive TVs that are now a normal part of the electronics market. “And of course, in between you have the middle range, the computers, laptops, desktops,” he says. Many of these items, once thrown out of the household, end up being transported to the third world e-waste dump sites. Given that the movement of hazardous waste between countries is banned by the 1992 Basel Convention, e-waste is often smuggled into receiving countries, where cheap labour and lax regulations make these places attractive dump-sites for ‘First World’ waste. Sometimes e-waste is hidden within shipments, and other times it is imported as second-hand good, disguised as part of charitable efforts to bridge the digital divide between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ countries.
When e-waste arrives, the poorest members of the local communities often task themselves with salvaging raw materials (such as copper, silver and gold) from these old computers and televisions. “The technologies that they use are very basic to try and extract these valuable items, so they actually cook them in acid in order to pry open, to pulverise the e-waste, and this is very dangerous,” Doron tells me. This work often comes with huge health consequences, ranging from direct contact with the acids to breathing in the fumes. An episode of Dateline on SBS called ‘E-Waste Hell’ showed that the toxicity from the e-waste was not isolated to the dumpsite under scrutiny, but had spread to the local food market, causing health problems for the community at large.
Furthermore, it is clear that Dr Doron sees the e-waste flow as part of a bigger problem. He points to what he calls ‘fashion obsolescence’ – our concern with “being left behind, the need to constantly update ourselves”. This trend stems from ‘planned obsolescence’, whereby companies deliberately design their products to last only a given period of time to ensure consumers keep buying. Planned obsolescence goes back to the 50s and 60s with the emergence of the global consumerist society, and instilled in consumers the need to constantly purchase new items. Dr Doron points to the recent iPhone 7, asking, “Now there is no jack for the earphones – what will happen to all these headpieces?” It’s a worthwhile question, especially when one thinks about the number of iPhone docks and cables already rendered useless by Apple upgrading the iPhone’s main power connection.
However, there is some progress being made on the issue. When I asked about who was responsible for dealing with the problem, Dr Doron contended that private industries and the state both had roles to play. “In some areas they’re trying to initiate Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), so that companies, whether it’s Samsung or Sony, are obliged to purchase back the items that were discarded and take responsibility.” He also spoke of a recent development in Sweden, where the Social Democrat and Green parties both proposed a range of tax breaks for repairs, in an attempt to push the economy towards a repair service industry, rather than constantly replacing goods. “It makes it more worthwhile to repair your items, than to simply discard them and throw them away,” Doran said.
Nearing the end of our discussion, I started to think about what I might do with my laptop, which, purchased second-hand a year and a half ago, is nearing the end of its life. When it’s planned obsolescence kicks in and it does finally stops working, there are a few options for me. I can throw it in the rubbish or recycling bin, where it will ends up in landfill or who knows where else. I could also try to get it fixed. Or, I can choose to do what Dr Doron says many Australians do – shove it in a drawer and forget about it. But given the social and environmental effects of e-waste on the people and places in some of the most disadvantaged regions in the world, I think the journey to a local disposal centre is worth my time.
Dr Assa Doron’s book, co-authored with Professor Robin Jeffrey, is titled ‘Cleaning Up India: Garbage, Growth and Government, and is to be released in 2017. For information on how to properly dispose of your electronic items, see http://www.ecoaction.com.au/resources/home/e-waste/.
Image Credit: Kevin McElvaney