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Electronic waste is a huge source of environmental pollution and endangers the health of people. It is therefore urgent to find ways to generate less of this type of waste, and to recycle it safely.
Context within NORA
Relationships to Needs
Electronics produce a lot of waste, including metals (of varying characteristics), rubber, glass and plastics - all of which can be harmful if simply thrown away.
Landfills, and any kind of improper processing of e-waste also pollute the air to breathe and water to drink, which are capable of traveling and spreading the pollution. This can have severe impacts on health of humans as well as of other living things, which can be greatly mitigated by better management practices.
Relationships to Resources
Disposal of e-waste in landfills can contribute to a greater scarcity of land, particularly in densely populated areas where landfill space competes with agricultural, urban and industrial land uses (well beyond the site of the landfill itself).
Recycling materials will decrease demand for new raw materials, reducing requirements for mineral resources.
Living things are negatively affected by the land use, pollution, and mining mentioned above.
The electronic items that are thrown away are a type of human-made, physical assets. Throwing them away or doing a poor job of processing them ignores their potential value.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Electronic waste recycling most obviously ties into natural resource management clusters. Assuming proper disposal of even a fraction of generated waste, space in landfills needed would decrease, resulting in a net decrease of land required for the landfills in the first place, resulting in more room for other endeavors.
If recycled properly, the disposal will also prevent harmful substances and metals from leeching into the soil, air, and water, mitigating contamination that would otherwise occur.
Recycling of electronic waste also ties directly into currencies and markets. The recycling of high value and rare materials will put them back into the market, lowering the steady rise in price as supply drops. Also, recycling the resource will require less of it be produced, cutting down on mining and manufacturing that would need to be done.
The individual sales cluster could benefit, as it relates to manufacturing and retail. As long as recycled materials stay in circulation, manufacturing prices would stay down and thus, so would retail prices, similar to the points presented in the above paragraph. If a Dell computer costs less to produce because of the metals in it cost less, its price at Best Buy will also be less.
Depending exactly upon the nature of the electronics, it could apply to the committed sales or service cluster. For example, recycled materials being used in a specific carrier's cell phones being supplied to its area of service, or boards and computers being supplied to a local Internet supplier.
Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity
Some discussion (still missing) is needed here on why so much electronic equipment is thrown away, and why so little of that is recycled.
"Recycling" in Ghana and China
E-waste is often carted over to Ghana for incredibly low prices by many companies. In Ghana, it is usually dumped into huge scrapyards that completely lack any sort of protection, causing harmful components like mercury, brominated fire retardants, and lead to leak into the soil and water.
In the scrapyard, workers with little pay and less protection search for the valuable components among the junk, prying the electronics open for valuable metals. What rubber and plastic remains is either dumped into a landfill, which pollutes the soil and water, or simply burned, which pollutes the air.
Guiyu, a city in southern China, is home to a similar situation as Ghana's, on a far greater scale. Referred to as the "E-Waste Capital of the World," Guiyu employs well over 150,000 workers that pick through scrapyards and dumps for cables, chips, boards, cases, and batteries for reprocessing. Like in Ghana, there is rampant uncontrolled burning, grinding of plastics, and disposal that causes much pollution, leading to severe local health problems, especially lead poisoning.
E-Cycling in the United States
The EPA currently maintains a database of locations per state where electronics can be donated and recycled. As of right now, this seems to be the furthest the EPA is interested in recycling laws, other than safety laws on disposal. Recycling programs generally fall to the state level. Twenty-five states (in order of adoption: California, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, Hawai'i, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, South Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) have adopted some variety of program dealing with the recycling, donating, or reusing of electronics in addition to various independent organizations that promote similar ideals.
Although affluent industrialized nations have laws that prohibit dumping of e-waste within the country itself, there is no law stating the waste cannot be taken elsewhere. As it is significantly cheaper to simply throw the waste material in a big hole in a country with lax laws than it is to actually process any of it, it happens far more often than it really should. Places like China and Ghana are so often chosen because of the local government's extremely lax laws regarding environmental issues and the willing workforce in the area to do their own scavenging of the waste.
To stop this, there could be a United Nations-backed initiative to eliminate the unsafe dumping of e-waste in signatory countries, though this would still require nations to sign such an agreement. Local national governments in the most affected areas (IE, China, Ghana) could also create similar laws that ban dumping.
Though, simple disposal just is not enough. Incentive needs to be provided to corporations to recycle rather than dispose on a national level. This could be done by either making the act of recycling attractive in of itself, or by making the option of not recycling unattractive. How this specifically could be done is wide open; a government could either provide bonus rewards to companies that operate recycling programs that meet a set of criteria, or could simply impose taxes on waste brought to landfills.
Efforts toward better Product Design
Inspired by the "Cradle-to-Cradle" concept and "Intelligent Product System," there are some efforts to develop better products. These include Phonebloks and Fairphones
Phonebloks is a project to create a phone that is modular, not unlike computers or laptops. The core of the phone is simply a circuit board with a touch screen; the rest of the functionality comes in a diverse collection of 'bloks' that are attached to the back and secured with a panel. Every bit of hardware is customizable, from the screen and internal memory to a camera or microphone. Most of the bloks would be user-contributed by various startups in addition to established brands. Very little hardware would be replaced, on a very seldom basis.
A related venture, Fairphone, has already started production. They are seeking to introduce the "fair trade" concept into the production of smartphones, ensuring that tantalum, tin and other materials used in the phone are from mines where they do not fund armed struggle and the workers are paid decently, enabling better working conditions in the factory where the smartphones are produced, producing a phone that can be used for a long time, and helping to establish methods of safe e-waste recycling. They are not fully there yet - and can not be at the current scale of operations. For example, according to one of their blog posts, the factory in Chonqing, China, were the first smartphones are being produced (December 2013) has 1000 employees, of whom only 100 are involved in producing the fairphones. In order to improve working conditions for all workers at the factory, Fairphone has begun a process involving the management of the company and the workers; in the immediate term, a $2.50 surcharge on each phone sold is put in a fund (matched by the company, thus $5 per phone) managed by a body elected by the workers and to be used for the benefit of the workers as they decide.
Note that the above paragraph is based only on the company's own web-site and a Deutsche Welle report and is thus not fully fact-checked.
Approaches to creating greater Abundance
Rather than buying a new product, consider:
Companies can design modular products, and design them so that they can be easily recycled. See Intelligent Product Systems.
Manufacturing companies can take back electronic products and recycle them.
Governments can pass laws requiring manufacturers of electronic products to take them back and recycle them.
Basel Action Network: non-profit organization that exerts pressure on governments to stop the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, and to support the production of products that do not generate toxic waste.
E-Stewards: certifies responsible e-waste recyclers in the United States; the site provides a map where you can find them.
Carroll, Chris. "High-Tech Trash." National Geographic January 2008.
EWASA (E-Waste Association of South Africa)
Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health - and a vision for change. New York: Free Press. See especially pages 202-206.
"Poisoning the poor - Electronic Waste in Ghana ." Greenpeace. Greenpeace International, n.p. Web. 5 Aug. 2008.
Basel Action Network. 25 Feb. 2002. Exporting Harm - The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.
United Nations. United Nations Environmental Programme. Recycling - From E-waste to Resources. New York: United Nations, 2009.