Student Life: Enough With E-Waste: Is Recycling Enough?

The story goes as follows. Advertisements introduce you to a product. Society pressures you to buy it. You work to have it. Then, you finally buy it. A better one comes along. You move on. This is the story for millions of electronics that the modern day society consumes. Where do all the old and outdated technologies end up? They are dumped and forgotten. Coining the term e-waste, old, discarded and obsolete electrical or electronic devices (EEE) are lost in the global sphere. Often meant to be recycled, the products are exported from the developed countries that consume them, to developing countries that suffer from them. Most of society is ignorant to e-waste and its actual long-term effects. Soon, if not acted upon, humanity will face e-waste at its pinnacle point. This may sound a little bit dramatic, but this hazard could have serious consequences on health and environment. While not directly a “new medium,” e-waste engages with various topics including history, economy, politics and environment.

E-waste is the product of the industrial revolution. As illustrated by Harvey (1989), Fordism – the regime of accumulation at that time – is a cycle of mass production by workers who subsequently used their hard earned money to consume these products. Even with the approach to recycling technology, e-waste is exponentially growing. According to BBC News (2010), approximately 53 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide; about 13% of that was recycled properly. Recycling alone cannot challenge the speed of consumption. Even though more people are recycling, a subsequent result of recycling is the consumption of another product. Thus the rate of consumption already levels out the rate of recycling – and this does not factor the consumption of new innovations and devices.

In the global world, most of the e-waste lands in countries like China, India and Nigeria. They are responsible to recycle electronics. Unfortunately, the workers in these countries do not have the right resources or working environments to appropriately execute recycling.  The problem in EEE recycling is that when components of the devices are agitated or heated, they react with each other or create toxins. These toxins are deadly to humans and also to the natural environment. E-waste collection sites do not advertise how exactly they recycle the products. The reality is that there is nowhere professing they are responsibly recycling e-waste.

plastics-from-e-waste-from-national-geographic-photographer-2

Frankly, a shift on regulatory action is urgently needed, as the current global standards against e-waste are clearly inept in responding to the crisis. Companies propagate environmentally friendly alternatives in response to their e-waste footprint. Factually, according to Boone and Ganeshan (2012), these lies run a deep contradiction. EEE products are not being recycled properly at the end of consumption. With almost all the companies professing their elaborate reuse guidelines and minimal actual recovered resources available someone is always at fault. Oppositely, one practical measure a company is taking is addressing disassembly. Here, manufacturers like HP are realizing that the majority of the toxin problems are at the end of product life. In their production process, they use snap-in features so that disassembly is cleaner and safer.

People can argue that e-waste is a lie because the majority of new media is immaterial. Fair enough, but despite this truth consumers fail to realize that new media still need a physical medium to be consumed. For example, your laptops, cell phones, T.V.’s are all quick gadgets that are often disposed and forgotten. Surely, if society understood the reality of irresponsible scrapping, maybe e-waste can be fixed.

E-waste is a factual struggle in this age of new media. From production to the end of its life, electronic devices today do not factor in its harmful environmental impact. Society struggles with e-waste on a political standpoint as governments and groups try to combat e-waste but there is always an ignorant voice in the conversation. The voices are the companies and businesses focused on profit rather than the environment. Even though creators like HP, Apple and Phonebloks are slowly acknowledging the dangers of e-waste, there is a worry that these efforts are not enough or have unforeseen consequences.

– Jao Dantes, Student Life Contributor