Monday, March 7, 2016

The Impact of E-waste on the Developing World

As human beings on planet earth, we have an enormous stake in protecting our natural resources and ensuring we have a place to call home for generations to come. Unfortunately, our habits are not conducive to a healthy, sustainable environment in the long term. Pollution from our electronic waste is taking a major toll on not only the natural world, but also creating health problems for those that must deal with the disposal when it's no longer useful to us. Much of the e-waste created by the United States (cell phones, computers, electronics) is exported to other countries where it is cheaper to process. These parts of the world often don't have strict laws regulating the disposal of the hazardous and toxic components, and the dump sites are often ill equipped to handle them. One such place is Ghana, located in West Africa.

In article published on the Mongabay Eco-news website (April 30th, 2012), Jeremy Hance interviews documentary filmmaker David Fedele about the film he made exposing a slum in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, called Agbogbloshie. The slum is home to about 40,000 people, who are mostly migrants from rural areas. They come to try and make a living by breaking down and burning e-waste for raw materials that can be re-sold. 

The slum is a result of what Fedele calls the developed world’s “obscene obsession with consuming, discarding, then consuming again. I attempted to show that these expensive ‘things’ that we acquire, once they get old or broken, are nothing more than bits of plastic, metal, chemicals and other waste,” he explains. “That’s what struck me the more time I spent at Agbogbloshie. I saw a photocopier, but all they saw was copper, metal, computer boards … and a whole lot of plastic in the way stopping them from reaching these things! And it is all for money. The photocopier only has value because its parts are valuable to someone. But as a photocopier, it is totally worthless.” (Mongabay.com, 2015)

E-waste is toxic with materials like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. Without health or environmental protections in the slums like Agbogbloshie, these toxins contaminate the air, water, and fresh food supply. Mercury released into the atmosphere can bio accumulate in the foodchain, especially in fish which ends up exposing the general public. 

In the Agbogbloshie slum a man burns e-waste

A recent study from the United Nations reported 41.8 million tons of electronic waste were discarded in 2014, with up to 90 percent of this figure estimated to be illegally traded, exported or dumped – sometimes domestically. Knowing these figures alone can help us all to be aware of how our consumption of electronic goods has an impact long after the item has lost its value to us. Being responsible consumers and demanding that companies consider how their product will impact the waste stream is key to a healthier future for the planet, as well as the poor who are subjected to the toxic by-products of the developed world. 

For more about the documentary, visit: http://news.mongabay.com/2012/04/high-tech-hell-new-documentary-brings-africas-e-waste-slum-to-life/

References: 
http://www.triplepundit.com/2015/08/e-waste-stream-growing-can/
http://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf

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