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 :)


Mike Fagan said...

Regarding the plastic component of e-waste, I suspect the better and cheaper solution would be for the Africans to build new municipal incinerators to burn the plastics responsibly and generate electricity in doing so.

On the metals... recycling only makes sense for those metals that are concentrated in relatively large quantities. Copper and gold in old motherboards might be an example, but not the various lanthanides as the quantities are simply too small and it would cost far more to extract and process them than what they would finally be worth on the market.

Exporting the waste back to Europe en-masse is a silly idea, not just because it would take away a source of income from poor Africans, but also because it would make Europeans poorer as our recycling standards are much higher and therefore more costly.

The trick is to try to recycle efficiently - as much as possible, while still turning a profit, and much of that is probably better done by developing countries as their labour and other costs are lower.

Fangzhou Ma said...

I think it is quite insightful that our posts are put together.

The recycling of waste is a shortcut to expand the lifetime of certain resources and reduce the costs for manufacturers( as mentioned, in developing countries) . I believe that for decades, importers have gained much economic profits. The market, however, is no longer as beneficial as it used to be for both exporters and importers because of the growing attention on environmental externalities.

It is definitely wasteful that exporters re-shipped the e-waste driven by some moral motivation like "self-responsibility".However,I am curious if the withdrawing e-waste is the sole circumstance. Demand for the waste may be less, while the exporters may also require some cheap raw materials.

Cynthia Flores said...

Anneloes, your post it's really interesting!! E-waste is being increased due to the fast-updates in technology. The problem about developed countries exporting to developing countries is that this e-waste is not recycled or treated as it needs to be. Therefore, it could imply that developed countries are cleaning their backyard while sending all this waste which may damage and pollute more since population is exposed as result of unhealthy practices. Maybe, an export tax of e-waste to developing countries could increase the possibilities to manage it in the right conditions in developing countries. The situation that you mentioned about the high amount of people working in the e-waste sector in Africa is worrying, because if the imports of e-waste from developed countries increase, then could happen that people will completely shift from agriculture to be e-waste collectors, reclycer or refurbishing. This could lead to the famous Dutch Disease, where all the labour focuses in one sector (e-waste) which is the one that is generating cash flows, but it's leaving behind the central sectors for its own development, which help to be a country without to depend of inflows (money, resources, etc.) from other countries.

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