The Consequences Of E-Waste
It’s the world’s worst kept secret that technology has built-in obsolescence. The average lifespan of a smartphone is 18 months, meaning that phones that are cutting edge today will be worthless in two years. What happens then to old technology? These products, containing poisonous materials like lead and cadmium, are melted down for raw material like copper. Whatever's left is then left as "e-waste".
The e-waste trade is a lucrative, billion-dollar industry that exploits international regulations at the expense of the environment and human lives. Since the turn of the 21st century, an estimated 300-400 million tonnes of toxic waste are produced annually. Companies, looking to save money, select developing countries as dumping grounds for their e-waste. These countries are targeted due to their cheap labour and minimal regulations regarding health and the environment.
At first glance, it’s a symbiotic business relationship. Firms are given a location to dump the waste produced from their accelerated production of goods, while contractors in developing countries are given an alternative source of revenue. But the reality is that an exploitative industry is willing to do anything if it means saving money.
Agbogbloshie is an area near Accra, Ghana that is affected by unregulated e-waste dumping. An estimated 6,000 men, women and children work here, burning everything from smartphones to air conditioning units for their valuable metals, and the toxins released from the fires contaminate the air and food of the city. The damage doesn't stop there. As toxins are released into the air and soil, surrounding animals are poisoned too. The workers here, most lacking any alternative, suffer from severe burn wounds and respiratory damage—some dying as early as their 20s.
Guiyu is another e-waste dumping site, with 80 per cent of its e-waste supply coming from overseas, and a tragic image of the consequences of the waste trade. Under the guise of recycling, the area has become an image one would expect from post-apocalyptic fiction. The town generates US$75 million a year, but the questions must be asked regarding the cost of human lives and the environment. There are mountains of discarded electronics, the water is pitch black and the workers suffer from heavy metal poisoning. Drinking water has to be brought in by trucks due to the pollution, and the children living here suffer from dangerously high levels of lead.
This is a subject that not only impacts the environment but human lives, as a result of the new age of consumerism. Companies have created an artificial need to have the best and shiniest product rather than staying with what’s functional. Economically, it’s a situation often disguised as a good deed: people get to work, old pieces of technology get to be recycled and companies get to save money. However, the reality is the poor sacrifice their lives, toxins are released into the environment and companies are aloof.
The conversation must turn from burning old electronics, to repairing them. It simply makes more sense to fix rather than discard. This is a responsibility that ultimately falls to us, as consumers, to take a second before purchasing the newest product from these companies and ask “is it really worth it?”