The Ethics of E-Waste Recycling

New technologies and gadgets come and go quickly. Do you remember what you did with that old clunky TV that you replaced with a flat-screen TV? Is it still lying around the house somewhere?  Was it given away? Or maybe it was recycled?  E-waste accumulation is a serious side-effect of our consumerism that is literally kept out of sight and out of mind.  People often-times recycle their old electronics assuming that they would be disposed of safely and ethically; however, there are instances when the waste is merely shipped out to a developing country. PBS Frontline reported on this issue in their piece titled “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground” which gave some insight as to what really happens to some of our old technologies. The report begins with footage of Ghanaian children walking in fields that are covered in mounds of old electronics. The children are also seen setting fire to the e-waste in hopes of melting the plastic and collecting the metals that can be resold. Merely being around this process could be hazardous considering the fact that many contain toxic chemicals that are released into the air.

Situations such as this bring up the ethical issue of whether our thirst for pursuit for new technologies is worth the consequences of disposing of the old. It can be argued that advancing technologies can benefit both developed and undeveloped countries but it is hard to deny that there is a hidden price that has to be paid.




One comment

  1. kinde050

    I strongly agree that e-waste is an unseen consequence of our current technology consumption. According to GreenPeace International, more than 50% of waste collected for recycling is exported to the Far East, India, Africa, and China and 4.6 million tons of e-waste entered United State’s landfills in the year 2000. Shipping our waste to developing countries is obviously an incredibly disturbing ethical issue, and the root problem lies with using toxic materials to construct the products in the first place and producing products that will inevitably be thrown away. This paradigm leads to serious health problems and environmental contamination—especially for the citizens that are disassembling e-waste in landfills.

    Besides these harmful effects to humans and the environment, the manufacturer is missing an opportunity to return their “waste” products to their production process. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s “Waste Equals Food” chapter from Cradle to Cradle discusses how the current system of production combines a variety of materials into “monstrous hybrids”, which are difficult to dissemble for recycling and often harmful to the ecosystem once deposited of in the landfill. Thomas Fisher paralleled this idea when he described his “space and time” theory. Fisher explained that the majority of manufacturers fail to consider the “temporal profile” of their products, so a portion of the product deteriorates before another. Since these elements are typically fused together, consumers dispose of the entire product and eliminate the opportunity to recycle it. GreenPeace reports that one cell phone contains anywhere between 500-1000 different components, many of which contain toxic heavy metals and poisonous chemicals. According to GreenPeace, BFR’s (Brominated Flame Retardants) and PVC’s (Polyvinyl Chloride) are common toxic materials used in electronics that are unnecessary and can be replaced with alternatives to produce a safer product. If manufacturers eliminated their product’s toxic materials or found clean alternatives, they could design for disassembly and make a much more recyclable product. Since the elements would be modular, all the materials could be recovered and potentially re-enter the production process as “food”. Transforming the manufacturing process of electronics would reduce or eliminate the e-waste problem and greatly reduce the amount of waste gathering in landfills.

    EPA. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2012. .
    GreenPeace International. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2012. .

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