E-waste and the infrastructures of digitalization

14 minutes to read
Nikolas giampaolo

We tend to overlook the infrastructures of digitalization and the e-waste that they leave behind. The internet and the online world are not only about the intangible 'online' world, the online world has a material dimension too. Time that we zoom in on it. 

"The history of the world my sweet, Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat." (Bertolt Brecht)

E-waste in the margins

The current stage of globalization is characterized by intensified global flows, both in volume and in speed, of people, goods, information and cultural objects (Wang et al., 2014). This stage of globalization has been amplified by the advent of the internet and the related technological developments which allowed a faster mobility of information and shortened the distances between the centers and peripheries of the globe. However, everything comes at a cost. Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the current stage of free-market globalization has brought about a dramatic growth in economic and social inequalities both within states and internationally. However, the impact of this globalization is felt mostly by those countries who benefit from it the least (Hobsbawm, 2007), which in my analyses will represent the margin of globalization processes.

Globalization, thus, produces opportunities as well as constraints, new possibilities as well as new problems, progress as well as regression (Blommaert, 2010). Globalization can create new forms of economic activity, not only in the centers but also in the margins, due to the specific access to infrastructures. Taking as a point of departure the pervasiveness of the information technology revolution which contributed to the creation of a complex new economy and society (Castells, 2010), I shall analyze in detail the emergence of a new global trend.

Every year the world produces more than 40 million tons of electrical and electronic waste: among which computers, televisions, telephones, air conditioners, lamps, ovens, toasters and other electronic devices. The major pro-capita producers of e-waste are the United States and the European Union. Emerging countries, like China, are producing more and more of it. Of the waste produced, only a small part is recycled with methods that are efficient and safe for the environment. As the demand and consumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is constantly increasing in peripheral countries, most of these EEE are imported from core-like areas such as Europe and North America (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011). The importation of EEE into weaker countries has created a broad network of second-hand EEE business involving both formal and informal sectors. However, most of the EEE imported are old and end-of-life, meaning that within a few years they are going to be discarded as local waste (Amoyaw-Osei and Pwamang, 2011; Oteng-Ababio, 2012).

Taking into consideration Immanuel Wallerstein’s analysis of a world system where a capitalist economy is identified by an axial division of labor between core-like production processes and peripheral production processes, which results in an unequal exchange in favor of the core-like areas (Wallerstein, 2004), I will here examine in detail this phenomenon of e-waste.  

Source: United Nations University

What is e-waste and why is it brought to developing countries? 

"E-waste is a term used to cover all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use" (Step Initiative 2014). It is also referred to as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment).

Many of these out-of-date electrical and electronic devices still have commercial value because they still work or contain expensive materials that can be recycled. For this reason, they are loaded on containers, embarked and shipped from core to peripheral countries. Waiting at the destination there is a widespread turn of intermediaries, dealers, repairers, and merchants who choose, head up the operation and circulate the electronic waste of the rich countries in the local market.

Recent studies have shown that the majority of WEEE imports derive directly from core areas, especially Europe and North America (Ghana CEPS, 2010), from which they are transported to peripheral areas of development such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines (UNEP, 2005; Ha et al., 2009), where there are weaker environmental regulations and the management practices often take place in an unregulated manner with little or no concern for impeding effects on human health or the environment (Vasudev, 2005; Bisschop, 2012). In fact, as noted by Wallerstein, international trade is not a trade between equals. Some countries are stronger, both in economic and juridical terms, than others and therefore are able to trade on conditions that allow surplus-value to flow from the weaker countries to the core (Wallerstein, 2004). These relations create not only economic disparities but also geographical consequences as core-like processes tend to be grouped in a few states and to concentrate the majority of production activity in such states, whilst peripheral processes tend to be scattered among a large number of countries (Wallerstein, 2004).

As demonstrated by Walter’s (1978) investigation of environmental management in developing countries and confirmed by the pollution heaven hypothesis: pollution-intense activities will migrate towards those jurisdictions which are less strict with environmental regulation and in which costs of waste dismantling are lower. In fact, there is a lot of evidence of jurisdictions, in order to receive greater investments, racing to the bottom to flatten out investments costs, reducing also the costs related to pollution control, and thus making peripheral countries more affected by polluting industries (Lepawsky and McNabb, 2010). For these reasons weaker countries end up being "pollution heavens". Developing countries are more likely to become pollution heavens due to the fact that they might suffer political inadequacies which in turn would set environmental standards inadequately low or not enforced at all (Neumayer, 2001). Moreover, it has to be considered that the benefits of investments by polluting industries are highly tangible in terms of goods and services provided and jobs created; whilst, on the other hand, the effects of pollution are severely neglected for they are often invisible and take place in the long run.

The solution for the control and protection of human health and the environment against the dangerous effects of all hazardous waste came with the ratification of the Basel Convention in 1989.  Although the Basel Convention - which regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous waste with the implicit task of reducing their generation, promoting their environmentally sound management and prohibiting the shipments of hazardous waste to countries without the capacity to manage them - has been ratified by almost all the peripheral countries, its provisions are yet to be domesticated into national laws by many jurisdictions. The Convention does not ban completely the international trade in waste, but it does provide a framework for the transboundary movements of waste based on the "Prior Informed Consent": it excludes the possibility to export waste to nations that have banned such imports and requires each party of the Convention to introduce national legislation in order to prevent illegal traffic (Osibanjo, 2010). 

However, most the shipments of e-waste enter through the various ports of weaker countries under the label of second-hand electronic equipment, which does not present any restrictions or methods of detection at the present stage (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011). The majority of the WEEE shipments which arrive in developing countries are exported by core-like production countries, in particular EU members, which in most cases have domesticated the provisions of the Convention and thus are obliged to ensure that the flow and management of hazardous waste happens in an environmentally sound manner. Because of the absence of any national e-waste management system, there is an increasing presence of an informal sector for the collection and recycling of WEEE, exposing workers to chemical smokes, deteriorating the local environment and ineffectively recovering raw materials (Prakash et al., 2010).

Thus, as noted in Wallerstein’s analysis and easily recognizable from the process of e-waste management depicted above:

strong states tend to emphasize their role of protecting the quasi-monopolies of the core-like processes, whilst the very weak states, which contain a disproportionate share of peripheral production processes, are usually unable to do very much to affect the axial division of labor, and in effect are largely forced to accept the lot that has been given them.[…] Strong states relate to weak states by pressuring them to keep their frontiers open to those flows of factors of production that are useful and profitable to firms located in the strong states, while resisting any demands for reciprocity in this regard.” (Wallerstein, 2004)

A dangerous threat

E-waste has appeared in recent years as one of the most dangerous global environmental issues as it is posing grave challenges due to its chemical contents (Fredholm, 2008). In fact, the real challenges associated with the management of WEEE are not only linked to the ever-increasing volume of waste generation but mainly to the hazardous effects it could cause if not managed in an environmentally sound manner (Tengku-Hamzah, 2011). As demonstrated by different studies, E-waste contains various contaminating chemicals and materials such as arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc; all of which are a big threat to both the environment and humans (Tasaki et al., 2006; Brigden et al., 2008). 

E-waste components are, indeed, disassembled by exposed workers who use elementary methods and tools to extract the precious materials contained in electronic devices. The e-waste management and recycling activities are mainly performed by the informal sectors in most of the peripheral countries. For instance, a great number of out-dated devices are burned outdoors in order to recover gold, silver, copper or any other metallic component that can be sold in the market. 

Once disassembled, e-waste contents are accumulated into vast stacks. These management and recycling methods expose not only workers but also local residents to numerous heavy metals and dangerous chemicals which are present in e-waste components. If we take as an example Ghana, one of the most affected countries with 20,000 tons of e-waste dumped per year, it is shown that the local aquatic resources are potentially at high risk since the piles of e-waste components left outside are drenched or flooded by rainfall, producing toxic outflows from storage sites to local aquatic watercourses. 

As demonstrated by Bisschop (2012), most of the EEE exported to weaker countries is primarily dismantled to extract the precious raw materials of its components instead of being allocated to the second-hand market as one would assume from the label which allows the access through the port of entry of these countries. In fact, about 20% of imported EEE are already dysfunctional on arrival (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011).  On the one hand these management and recycling processes have brought about a vast informal sector which dismantles electronic devices and extracts valuable raw materials which are later on introduced in the market; on the other hand, this system also entails an uncontainable appearance of e-waste dump sites, mainly characterized by rudimentary recycling methods and precarious working conditions, which have a negative impact for the environment and humans as they contribute to the release of toxic substances (Otsuka et al., 2012).

E-waste presents Silver (linings)

Most people in the world still have no access to the new communication technologies that form the basic infrastructure of the information revolution. They live fundamentally un-globalized lives and remain disconnected to the rest of the technological advancements (Blommaert, 2010). We should note, therefore, that without the televisions repaired in these years, no one would have built the television towers. And the same applies to internet access. Used electronics play an important role in society for developing areas. Most of the students of peripheral countries have a second-hand computer, the majority of the households in poor areas conserve food in used fridges and a great number of televisions come from western hotel chains. 

It is only through the presence of the second-hand market that a part of the population has the possibility to catch up with technological progress and gain technical expertise. As already discussed, the problem with the second-hand market derives from the quality of the imported goods. In fact, almost all the electronic devices used in Western Africa have already been used for a long time. Some studies demonstrate that the average duration of EEE imported to weaker countries ranges from one to three years. Devices can be bought at local shops which specialize in the selling of used electronics imports, an activity which is becoming more and more predominant in the economy of peripheral countries. Once the electronic devices are discarded because they have come to the end of their life-cycle they will, statistically speaking, result as locally produced electronic waste.

Therefore, on the one hand, the importation of e-waste results in the contamination of the environment and degradation of human health because of carcinogenic and toxic fumes expelled during the rudimental recycling methods. However, on the other hand, it could be said that each e-waste dump site is a giant open-air mine where there is a great possibility of picking up waste and giving it a second life. Used electronic devices are a great source of revenue for peripheral countries and they also provide economic benefits to consumers, as these products are less expensive than new ones. In this sense, electronic waste is a resource. 

As the United Nations University's latest report explains, electronic waste can be seen as a toxic mine that holds a hidden treasure. In addition to the carcinogenic elements such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, electronic waste contains precious metals: in 2014 the value of precious metals and plastic recovered amounted to 48 billion euros, including 300 tons of gold. This is therefore a mine which, if managed correctly, could offer interesting development possibilities. However, even though the management of EEE and the rise of the second-hand market is creating big opportunities and further employment for a large section of the population, e-waste is still very much linked to severe environmental and human effects, hence weakening the overall benefits to a great extent (Prakash, 2010).

Source: United Nations University

E-waste and the infrastructures of globalization

The rapid process of globalization is introducing many challenges to peripheral countries, among which the management of the urban environment. In fact, the production of waste has increased enormously in recent decades and the emergence of e-waste is posing a big threat to underdeveloped countries. The precipitous evolution of electronic technology, along with the rapid product outmodedness, has escalated the proportion of the e-waste problem (Otsuka et al., 2012). It has been demonstrated that the amount of e-waste generated globally is mounting at a rate approximately three times faster than the growth of municipal solid waste (Schluep et al., 2009). 

The annual e-waste production amounts to an estimate of 30-50 tons (UNEP, 2010). However, just a small fraction, approximately 10%, of the overall amount of e-waste is considered to be managed in an environmentally sound manner, while about 80% is exported to weaker countries, such as Ghana, Vietnam and Indonesia, where it will go through rudimentary processes of dismantlement (Lundstedt, 2011). The inappropriate processes of disassembly and recycling of e-waste result in grave hazards to the environment and humans (Prakash et al., 2010), because of the presence of toxic substances that may be released during the management procedure (Lundstedt, 2011). At the same time, although e-waste contains dangerous components, it is also a great resource as it contains extractable precious materials such as gold, silver, and platinum (Prakash et al., 2010). It has to be noted, however, that most peripheral countries, where the majority of the e-waste is exported, do not have the capacity or the technology to deal with the ever-increasing quantities of e-waste, resulting in a rudimentary management of hazardous materials.

The detailed analysis of the mobilization of e-waste around the globe illustrates that globalization is a layered process which entails people who profit immensely from it, but also creates a large portion of losers and victims for whom globalization is an increasing obstacle in life (Blommaert, 2010). While one of the major conditions for globalization processes is the availability and accessibility of infrastructures for globalization, the distribution of such infrastructures is largely disproportional and peripheral areas are generally distinguished by partial access to specific infrastructures for globalization (Wallerstein, 2004). As we have seen, the global infrastructures of e-waste are a good example of how this creates winners and losers.



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