This past semester, I set my second year Masters of Public Health students a deceptively simple task: Write an opinion piece for a lay audience on a topic related to environmental health sciences and public health. Deceptive, as anyone who has attempted to write an op ed will tell you, it’s fiendishly difficult to find that balance between making an evidence-informed point and keeping your readers engaged. The class rose to the occasion though – so much so that I thought I would post some of my favorite pieces here (with the authors’ permission). So over the next few days, keep an eye out for a flurry of pointed, poignant and entertaining pieces on public health. While reading them though, please remember that these were not originally written to be published, and the students were encouraged to express their opinions – some of which I am sure will be controversial!
This piece comes from Anirudha Rathnam
A friend once told me that when she runs out of ink in her printer, she doesn’t buy a replacement cartridge. She buys a new printer. Knowing this, her family gets her printers for her birthdays. Shocked, I asked her two questions: Why? And what happens to the printers she discards? She was only able to answer the first question – cartridges are in fact more expensive than a new printer complete with ink. As for the second question, she has a stack of ten or so discarded printers in her basement. For a person who goes through three to four printers per year, she doesn’t have a clue what happens to the ones she runs out of space for; she simply throws them out.
In fact, most individuals don’t know where their discarded electronics go. Despite the death of your electronic device, its repercussions are still haunting others. E-waste (electronic waste), or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is a global and rapidly escalating problem for both the environment and the health of individuals in developing countries.
Each year, the United States dumps between 300 and 400 million electronic items, 80% of which is exported to China, India and Kenya. These nations have low environmental and working-condition standards, making it easier to dispose of electronic goods without paying for proper disposal or recycling. For example, removing cathode ray tubes from television and computer monitors is a difficult and expensive process. Instead, these products are often exported to developing countries hidden amongst operating but used electronics. Once in the country, the devices that don’t work are scavenged for secondary materials like copper, aluminum, brass and zinc. These materials can be a boon to impoverished communities – children in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, for instance sell these as scrap metal to buy schoolbooks. But improperly-disposed electronics also contain toxic agents such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and selenium. And once stripped of its useful parts, electronic waste is discarded in dumps where contaminants leak into the environment. Or burned, releasing harmful dioxins and toxic particulates. In Guiyu, China, e-waste is incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover metals like gold. The metal recovery rate is quite low though and the resulting airborne toxic pollution far-reaching.
E-waste now makes up 5% of the worldwide trash. Yet it makes up 70% of the earth’s toxic waste. In developed countries, the average lifespan of computers dropped from six to two years between the years of 1997 and 2005, while mobile phones now have a lifecycle of less than two years. In 2005, Greenpeace estimated that there would be 716 million new computers in use by 2010. By 2008 that estimate has already been exceeded by over a quarter of a million personal computers. With an accelerating use/disposal cycle, e-waste is projected to rise by 500% over the next decade, particularly in industrializing countries.E-waste has been escalating drastically due to rapid changes in technology, changes in media, falling prices of technology and products with planned obsolescence.
Due to increasing awareness of environmental justice issues, many companies and organizations have become socially incentivized to develop solutions to problems like e-waste in order to build a better, greener image. To holistically address this issue, efforts must be taken on multiple levels. The responsibility of e-waste lies on the shoulders of both the producers and disposers of e-waste as well as the consumers.
On the part of the producers of e-waste, the best solution is to simply follow the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reusing and refurbishing one computer monitor saves $670 in energy alone. Processors can be cleaned off to run faster, and memory can be added and hard drives replaced. As for recycling, for the past five years when you purchase an electronic device in the US, the price covers a fee for the disposal of device as well. The state uses this money to pay recyclers for disposal fees, as long as they provide documentation showing that the waste wasn’t brought in from out of state.Yet these solutions are only valuable to producers of e-waste who are environmentally conscious and aware of the e-waste problem.
The reality is that much e-waste still ends up in other countries. And the significant problem with reducing e-waste overall is that it eliminates a source of income for many who profit from it. Actions must be taken on the side of the e-waste consumers, too. Programs such as Waste Ventures, targeting individuals at the base of the pyramid, may be helpful in alleviating health problems resultant from e-waste.This program improves profitability for “waste pickers” from $1 to $7 per day, provides mandated protective gear to double the average individual’s lifespan, collectivizes and formalizes their role. Ventures like these may be able to provide training on a local level regarding the proper disposal of cathode ray tubes and other harmful agents of e-waste.
In order to tailor solutions to specific regions, further research may be needed. The project BackTalk, developed by MIT’s Senseable City Labshows a promising way to research path trajectories of e-waste. Tracking monitors placed on the discarded cellphones, batteries, printers and other electronics record location updates and pictures of the surroundings every 20 minutes. This data is then used to create a real-time visual narrative of the path of this e-waste. Although so far BackTalk has only tracked the path of waste within the US, it has shown how inefficient recycling components can be. Senseable City Lab hopes to provide information to help reduce toxic environmental hazards and raise consumer awareness on the inefficiencies of the e-waste disposal chain. Although we know where e-waste is accumulating and its final effects, very little is known about the path e-waste takes to get there due to illegal maneuvering and crossing of international boundaries. Future applications of BackTalk could be to gather more information regarding this global transfer of e-waste so that region-specific policies can be implicated to reduce levels of e-waste.
E-waste has been a rising problem not only for the environment, but for the health of individuals globally. Although there are many solutions in the works, much more effort is needed. The next time you throw out an electronic device, consider its ghostly, ghastly repercussions.