May 28 2009

E-Waste: A Scourge on the Third World

by at 2:05 pm under Uncategorized

I would like to promote the tragic consequences of e-waste on developing countries. E-waste (defined as materials left over from our consumer electronic devices such as televisions, computers, cell phones, etc) has developed into a worldwide business, a sort of “reverse value added chain” where each component that has value must first be extracted through “recycling” processes that cause disease, contamination, environmental destruction to those who perform them. The problem is that properly recycling e-waste is an expensive alternative and promoting “re-use” of older computers in schools is often more of a loophole to get rid of truly broken and antiquated technology than a charitable act helping students.

There are four principal actors involved in this issue. First, the consumers, who want to dispose of their decaying technology in the cheapest way possible and are willing to contribute little in order to do this humanely and in an environmentally-friendly manner. Second, the electronics manufacturers, who have primarily joined the fight to protect the third-world from e-waste as a marketing tool. Third, the networks of business that outsource e-waste recycling in order to profit from the individual components of value hidden inside consumer devices (things like gold and copper). And finally, fourth, the individuals, often children, who process e-waste in the Third World as a source of meager income and at the expense of their health and environment.

The structure of their relationship is very tangental. As Stiglitz discusses in “Development and Its Discontent,” time plays a very detrimental role in the promise of corroboration. Many years can pass between the sale of a consumer electronic device (transacting between the consumer and the manufacturer) and the time of “recycling” of the devices. Often, the company that produced the product may be out of business by the time of recycling. For example, Packard Bell, a very popular computer manufacturer in the early nineties, was nearly out of business in the late nineties when many of its devices began to enter the e-waste market. How can a company in a completely different economic stage deal with products made a decade before? The consumers are separated from the poor in the third world who process their waste by a corporation setup to find loopholes in environmental laws in order to profit. Consumers never see the face at the end of their laziness.

A strategy to start a reversal of this e-waste market is two-pronged. First, education of consumers is paramount for success. The government could mandate electronic companies to include the dangers of e-waste in their marketing material, much as the government mandates public service announcements from broadcast media companies. Second, we can incorporate the cost of proper recycling into the cost of the computers at time of purchase, to eliminate the time-delay that leads to e-waste. Companies could be forced to pickup all e-waste generated by them in exchange for this mandated fee during the purchase of the product. This is similar to the way airlines added a fee for the increase in security costs after 9/11.

The problems of e-waste cannot be solved without a thorough understanding of network that allows it to flourish. Just as Sturgeons acknowledged the complexity of the value chains in the global automotive industry, we must discover the incentives that drive our e-waste into the developing world. Without a strong understanding of this nexus, we cannot break apart current incentives while added alternative routes for profit. Until then, the third world will continue to be exposed to toxins all because of the first world’s laziness.

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