The real, global cost of your cellphone
If society wants to continue using electronic devices, it is going to have to reconsider current practices.
AMERICANS love their electronic devices, and for good reason. They are extraordinarily handy when it comes to keeping yourself organized in the hectic modern world. We can check our email in seconds, send quick messages to our friends when we are running late and take high-quality photos whenever our hearts desire.
These are the things that make life in the 21st century great, right?
How much would we love these devices if a garbage truck dumped a couple of thousand in our back yard?
Most of us would consider a mountain of used electronic devices to be an eyesore and a safety hazard. Sadly, these ugly and dangerous piles of discarded devices do exist. You probably won't find them anywhere in your neighborhood, but for people living in towns such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and Guiyu, China, electronic waste has become a part of their landscape.
Electronic waste, also referred to as e-waste, has become a part of these towns' economies, as well. Electronics often contain resources, such as copper and even gold, that can be extracted from the devices and sold.
Citizens of Guiyu also find employment among the fields of circuit boards that are scattered throughout their town. In a 2013 CNN report, journalist Ivan Watson stated that in Guiyu, "Hundreds of thousands of people . . . have become experts at dismantling the world's electronic junk."
The fact that citizens can profit off the e-waste sites may make it sound like they are not such a bad thing. However, the cost to workers' health far outweighs the small wage they can collect from dismantling electronic garbage. Many of the parts found in electronics are hazardous. For example, some old CRT (cathode ray tube) computer and television screens contain lead. Also, in order to access the sellable parts of the used devices, scavengers must burn their plastic outer casings, which releases toxic fumes into the air. In an Al Jazeera report on Agbogbloshie, reporter Kevin McElvaney claimed that for e-waste site workers, "Injuries like burns, untreated wounds, lung problems, eye damage and back problems go hand in hand with chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. Almost everyone suffers from insomnia."
The e-waste dumps are devastating to the environment as well. Potentially dangerous minerals, such as cadmium and beryllium, find their way into the soil and local water supplies. If the sources of both food and water are contaminated, then areas surrounding e-waste dumping sites will no longer be able to sustain many forms of life.
Air pollution caused by the burning of electronic devices is another environmental concern. The negative effects of air pollution will be felt by those living and working on e-waste dumping sites, as well as by those living far away. For example, the gases that cause acid rain, such as sulfur dioxide, may be sourced from the burning of materials on an e-waste site, but the acid precipitation will often fall miles away.
So, now we know that e-waste is a serious problem for all of us, but this does not mean that our tech-obsessed society will stop demanding the latest and greatest in electronics. As stated in 2013 by John Vidal, the environment editor for the Guardian, "The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33 percent in the next four years, when it will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids."
However, it is important to keep in mind that this is a prediction and not an inevitable fact. There is something we can do about it.
When I asked Jonathan Latko, director of the Computer Recycling Center at Temple University, about what is being done to stop the exportation of e-waste, he told me about the Basel Action Network (BAN). BAN is a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Wash., that created the e-Stewards and R2 recycling programs. The purpose of these programs is to replace the practice of exporting e-waste with a system of responsible recycling.
Latko also explained that manufacturers of electronic products must report the total weight of goods they sell in a year and subsidize the collection of these products. The manufacturers must work with processing companies that have R2 or e-Steward certification. According to Latko, Philadelphia has three such major processing companies: ECOvanta, in West Philadelphia, and MPC and Kuusakoski, both in Northeast Philadelphia.
The benefits of technology are innumerable, but some of our resources are not. Electronics can be extremely helpful, but they are not worth the cost of human and environmental health. If society wants to continue using electronic devices in the future, it is going to have to reconsider its current practices.
So, please, buy and recycle electronic devices responsibly.