The alarming trend of e-waste in developing nations

// Posted by on 06/11/2015 (6:02 PM)


In today’s society, “waste not want not” is incorporated into our collective psyche, encouraging recycling and reusing products whenever humanly possible. As the Australian newscast and Slade’s “Made to Break” both indicate, the culture of disposal is an American invention but has spread worldwide. The American cancer of disposability began with simple sanitary objects such as razors, tampons, and tissues, but moved to heavier industry as fast as Model T Fords could roll off the assembly line in Dearborn.

The rapid growth of technology has led to an international obsession with technological obsolescence, as consumers in more affluent nations want the newest, trendiest things that the advertising agencies convince them that they can’t live without. These range from flat screen TVs to 4G smartphones, and the consequences for not recycling the now-retired electronics are proving dire in many countries. However, Searle’s prediction that the 2009 DTV transition in the United States (as well as later ones in other countries) would cause a massive surge in e-waste containing analog television sets has been somewhat less than predicted, as converter boxes have given outdated sets a new lease on life.

Prior to the Basel Convention, the main practice was for Western nations, Japan, South Korea, and Australia to send their obsolete electronics to developing nations, where cities such as Guiyu in China and Accra in Ghana are subject to dangerous air and water pollution due to the harmful components used in the production of cathode ray televisions and older cell phones, as well as lead-based acids used to melt precious metals out of circuit boards. The Australian report indicated that air pollution in Ghana makes it difficult to breathe, and illnesses due to lung sensitivity are at all-time highs. In Guyiu, the blood of many local children was tested, and extremely elevated levels of lead was found, especially compared with blood from children in another nearby town that does not act as a dumping ground for Western e-waste.

Proper recycling of electronic waste has not been regulated nationwide in the United States, resulting in confusion across states, where different recycling laws exist for outdated electronics. Attempts at a national standardization failed in Congress in 2004, and have not been properly reintroduced. If the federal government, as well as the states, were to properly follow the Basel Convention protocols (especially if they ratified the accords), then they would have better plans for internal disposal of hazardous e-waste, reducing the threat of health damage in the United States, as well as developing nations that have spent years receiving these devices.

Electronic waste has been the fastest-growing environmental threat of the last fifty years. As computer, telephone, and television technology rapidly improve and streamline, the newly-obsolete predecessors (just the latest victims in the American cult of obsolescence) are improperly disposed of, often sent to the world’s developing nations, where they are burned or washed in acids, resulting in severe pollution for miles around the dump sites, leading to widespread illness of the local population. The Basel Convention, which the United States has yet to ratify, works to curb the e-waste problem by improving internal disposal of hazardous wastes and regulation of their sites, but does not fix the long-term health problems in Accra or Guiyu.


Sorry I could not find a video clip of this, so the sound clip will have to do… This is the “Recycle” song from the 90’s Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life. Enjoy!





Categories: Uncategorized


Rosatelli said...

Hi Sarah,

Things are getting a bit better, but you are right to note that the US has to ratify the Basel Convention for it to be effective. (We have signed, but not ratified.) There are many forces at work here, and we have entered into separate agreements with other countries (such as Canada and Mexico) concerning the transfer of waste, but we are not really participating in a broad conversation about the planetary issue of ewaste and the ongoing need for regulation and/or control. Slade makes the argument that this type of consumption is now part of American culture. Do you agree? If we were to drastically change our consumptive ways, would we somehow be “less” American?

// 06/12/2015 at 2:43 pm

Shirley said...

I totally agree, Sarah. Wow! You are right that people are slowly beginning to realize the full effect that technology is having on our lives. Everyone needs to understand from the person who refused to own or use a microwave oven not to mention a smartphone to the techno geek who must have the latest and greatest gadget. The United States is a pioneer in many ways but are we leading innovation in the wrong direction. Maybe someone should find a way to leave the trash on the moon? Someone probably already had that suggestion:)

// 06/12/2015 at 6:03 pm

Kaitlyn said...

I think that it is very interesting that we started the semester reading about where the Internet came from and the technologies that go along with it and now we see what is happening to the original electronics. These older electronics should be recycled and disposed of properly. We need to have regulation world wide if everyone is going to have electronics. There need to be regulations so we are not shipping to third world countries and relying on them to dispose of them. We are harming not only the people but the environment.

// 06/12/2015 at 8:26 pm

Jessie said...

Hi Sarah,

Great post.What a journey, we began the semester with the discussions of a culture of openness and the desire to share knowledge and the hope to understand other cultures. We discovered how the Internet physically connected our world. We end with realization that the international obsession with technological obsolescence is contributing to the destruction of the world and corruption of other cultures. This is a planetary problem and the U. S., as a world leader, needs to step up and set a good example. Not sure if the Basel Convention is the solution but at least it is a start.

// 06/13/2015 at 2:46 pm

Kindall said...

I completely appreciate you “throwing it back” to Rocko from the 90s.

You’re right, and I thought it was blunt of you to describe electronic waste as the fastest growing environmental threat. So why are we so concerned about the ice caps melting, but this is nowhere to be found on the nightly news?

Could it be because electronic waste is also its own industry? Maybe we justify dumping our e-waste in desolate nations because “they can salvage the copper to make a living”. But that doesn’t seem right.

No one wants to spend the money to properly disposes of these materials. But why? How much will it cost us in the end for a quick fix?

// 06/13/2015 at 10:03 pm