OpEd: ‘E-Waste’ Creating a Toxic Environment

Photo Credit: Paulo Fehlauer

Jack Allen | Contributor

The reduction of electronics waste, or “e-waste”, has recently been determined as one of six global priorities, along with goals such as improving water quality, air quality, and reducing carbon emissions. In August 2010, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged e-waste and its toxic byproducts as a threat to our wellbeing and the environment. This recognition prompted various corporations, advocacies, NPOs (Non-Profit Organizations), and individuals to look into the electronics waste industry, questioning manufacturing processes, demanding transparent chains of custody, and finally seeking out how e-waste is disposed of.

Around the same time that Jackson gave her statement, Pieter Hugo, a photojournalist for the New York Times, published a series of images that depict backyard-recycling practices in Ghana. The photographs show children and young adult workers, aged 11 to 20, sifting through trash heaps that look more like graveyards, sooty and haunting. Toxic smoke billows from small hills of computer monitors and keyboards; goats stand idly beside fires, often put out by bowls of ice carried by young women. These yards are vast, and often lead out towards the horizon before disappearing.

The electronics found in Ghana are burned to extract the metals available for resale. However, we can’t help but ask, ‘Where does it all come from?’

IEEE Spectrum published an article that outlines some staggering e-waste numbers, and provides an infographic that shows routes of e-waste dumping. In the US alone, they suggest, 130 000 computers and 300 000 cell phones are trashed every day. These gadgets are not thrown into local landfills, but rather, they are shipped, legally or illegally, offshore to Nigeria, China, Indonesia, and other developing countries.

Companies BAN (Basel Action Network) and eStewards aim to limit or even condemn offshore shipping to prevent situations like the one in Ghana from worsening.

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