7 Mar 2018

The forth-and-back of e-waste: who benefits?

Anneloes writes:*

In 2016, about 44,7 million tons of electronic waste were generated globally (Baldé et al., 2017 [pdf]). The waste stream has been rapidly increasing due to fast innovations in technology and shrinking product lifespans. Moreover, for many people it is unacceptable to be using the iPhone 7 when the iPhone X has already been released. In the United States, more than 98 million phones are discarded every year (Johnston, 2003). Falling product prices and higher repair costs also speed product replacement. A laptop that is made to last 5 years is often replaced after 2 years because the screen broke or the processor struggled with new software. The market thus effectively provides what consumers desire: quickly replaceable gadgets bringing the newest technologies.

However we don't get the option of just replacing the software and keeping the rest of a still working gadget. Few companies are already working on future-proofing of their products this way, unfortunately they are still the rare exemptions. The amount of obsolete computers in China and South Africa is forecast to increase by 500% by 2020 compared to 2007 (Wang et al., 2012).

A large part of these old electronics has been piling up in developing countries this last decade. About 50-80% of e-waste from developed countries ends up in regions as Africa and China (Wang et al., 2012). Demand of second- hand electronics is one of the factors driving this export. This second- hand electronics market has proven to be an important driver of change. Many developing societies now have access to technology stimulating socio-economic growth. Electronic gadgets and appliances provide people with more comfort, health, security as well as easier access to and exchange of information. Some may be able to start a business thanks to a second hand cell phone from Europe.

Discarded electronics from the West can also be a source of income for locals in receiving countries. Refurbishment and dismantling for resource extraction has been proven lucrative business and is surrounded by a flourishing informal recycling economy. In Ghana, it is estimated (Prakash et al., 2010 [pdf]). that between 20.000 and 33.000 people work as e-waste collector, recycler or in refurbishing. Their salary may not be high, but it does give workers access to rapid cash flow, something that is absent in households trying to make a living from agriculture.

Most reports and articles on the topic do not emphasize these benefits. The focus is mainly on the health threats and environmental damage Western e-waste causes in developing countries. After refurbishment and reuse activities, electronics are dismantled for material recovery which often takes place in open dump sites. A lot of the work is done by children using only basic tools and no protective equipment (Oteng-Ababio, 2012). Open burning of plastics emits harmful fumes and toxic chemicals potentially pollute the soil and groundwater through leaching (Oteng-Ababio, 2012).

To mitigate the damage from e-waste, various projects have emerged with the aim of shipping old electronics back to Europe (to Belgium, as in Linnenkoper, 2017) to recycled them “properly”. It feels like “our” responsibility to solve the problems “we”, the industrialized countries, have posed upon development countries. Even though while doing this, we may be taking people’s income away with the e-waste. Euro-centrism? White man’s burden? It would be interesting to evaluate the costs, or rather, benefits taken away from local workers in the informal recycling sector for electronic waste.

Bottom line: Electronic waste from developed countries has become a major problem in developing countries. Solutions should consider local economic structures and focus on local opportunities for solving these problems.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)