The reality is that this is a brief period in the long journey taken by any device, a journey which often begins and ends with the exploitation of the world’s poorest.
An average smartphone, for example, may contain over 60 different types of metals, mined in various corners of the world, as well as plastics and ceramics.
This array of materials means that properly disposing of devices is complicated and fraught with issues. As a global society, we are currently accumulating electronic waste or e-waste at a rate of 50 million tonnes every year.
About a quarter of this is IT equipment and screens (including televisions), and there are estimated to be over 100 million additional used devices stored in the attics and drawers of homes across the world.
Of this so-called ‘tsunami of waste’, around 20% is officially reported as properly collected and recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfills or in informal ‘recycling’ operations in developing countries, where the toxic chemicals used in production are released into the surroundings causing untold damage to human health and the environment.
Meanwhile, valuable minerals and complex components, extracted at such huge cost to the natural environment and human welfare, are wasted after only a short period of use.
International exports of e-waste occur as part of a wider global waste trade that is sadly symptomatic of global inequality and overconsumption in the 21st century.
Defective and unwanted items from Western countries often end up on the shores of developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, where they may be repaired and sold on to be used again.
Unusable items are taken directly to disposal sites where they are often dismantled and harvested for reusable materials by local workers.
Unlike in formal recycling centres, which use expensive machinery to separate materials from waste items, these informal ‘recycling centres’ are typically dumping grounds or warehouses in which components are frequently smashed apart and burned in the open air. This releases harmful substances, such as dioxins and furans, into the air causing serious health problems in workers and local people who are exposed to the fumes, and other toxins seep into the soil and water supplies.
Perhaps the most notorious of these ‘digital dumping grounds’ is in Agbogbloshie, on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, where a large scrap yard has developed next to a slum that is home to around 100,000 people. The featured image above shows a child in Accra running next to a fire where electronic cables and other electrical components are being burned in order to melt off the plastic and reclaim the copper wiring
The area and its association with e-waste has been the subject of numerous documentaries and publications and has been called “the most toxic area on the African continent” and the “world’s largest e-waste dump” with one documentary suggesting that it will “most probably be the final destination of the smartphone, the computer you buy today”.
These statements have been disputed, and some of the reports that focus on Agbogbloshie have been accused of oversimplifying what is a complex global problem. Many other e-waste processing sites exist across the developing world, particularly in China and South-East Asia. What is clear is that the toxic burden of the products we consume in the West has been shifted onto the world’s most vulnerable in a systematic way.
Various laws have been enacted across the world in a bid to stem the flow of toxic waste to the developing world. The Basel Convention is an international treaty that bans exports of hazardous waste, while China, India and Thailand have recently placed bans on e-waste imports to their countries. Another treaty, the Bamako Convention, is between African nations and prohibits the import into Africa of any hazardous waste.
Despite the regulations, studies have suggested e-waste continues to be exported from the EU – a recent study used GPS trackers to follow disposed of and non-functioning electronics devices from several EU states to their final destinations.
It found that around 6% of items ended up being exported, most likely illegally, with the most instances originating in the UK. Other major exporters such as the US have not ratified the Basel Convention, and similar studies have suggested that as much as much as 40% of the e-waste supposedly recycled in the U.S. was actually exported, mainly to Asia.
The sources of illegal exports are often difficult to trace due to complex waste disposal chains and trans-shipment networks, but it has been suggested that items slip through the net by being labelled ‘repairable’ or ‘used’ goods rather than waste.