Global E-Waste Epidemic: Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Many of us identify with the growing movement to better understand our collective and individual impact on the environment and one another. We can look to our own communities for working examples of regulations, initiatives, and programs that have been developed to tackle the growing problem of electronic waste. Curbside donation programs have sprung up in many communities around the U.S., but most of us stop thinking about the disposal process once it leaves our hands. There has been a lack of media coverage regarding the global community’s outsourcing of electronic waste.

Steps have been taken on an international level to promote responsible disposal, for example with the creation of the Basel Convention. However, loopholes exist. In her report, Madeleine Somerville points to the fact that externalizing the costs of disposal contributes to the exploitation of marginalized communities as well as the environment. The fundamental problem is not that we don’t care about the effects of e-waste, but that we are relatively unaware of the complete life cycle of the electronics we use. We are not yet tuned in to how our everyday lifestyles contribute to the amount of production and subsequent waste.

E-waste from around the world ultimately ends up in less developed countries such as India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines. We tend to do very little thinking about the people and places that deal with the burden of e-waste disposal.

The methods used to disassemble and “recycle” components often involve burning or chemically stripping plastics to expose the precious metals. Heavy metals and burning plastic contaminate the groundwater and pollute the air. These toxins bio-accumulate and can cause serious health problems. Somerville examines both ends of this story, from the habits we have that feed the structure of production, to the real world results of our lifestyles. She suggests that we ask ourselves more questions about how our behavior and lifestyles contribute to this growing problem. As we educate ourselves to the causes and effects of electronic waste, we will move closer to solutions or at least meaningful change in the right direction. Our conscience will remain inert without informed perspectives. With a better understanding of the whole process and how we as individuals fit into the story, our conscience can prevail.

Sources:

Madeleine Somerville, E-Waste Expose: What Happens to Electronics After Use?”, Earth 911, February 25, 2016, http://www.earth911.com/eco-tech/e-waste-expose/.

“BAN protects people and the planet from the toxic components within electronic waste,” Basel Action Network, 2015, www.ban.org/e-stewardship.

Student Researcher: Karl Wada (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)