Injustice in Electronics Recycling

By: Anita Cheng

I would like to ask you to remember how many pieces of electronics (computers, iPods, cell phones, etc.) you have purchased in the past 5 years. Now picture yourself living in Guiyu, China, where you spend your entire working life cooking printed circuit boards, breathing in brominated flame retardants, lead, and tin particles to extract precious metals that can be sold and reused. You are so used to this routine you don’t even notice the headache that is now manifesting. In fact, these circuit boards and the toxic fumes they emit originate from the electronics we have used and “recycled”. How did your old cell phone that you sent to an electronics recycling company end up in China? Check out this interview from Fresh Air on NPR. As individuals living in the most prosperous economy of the world, we have completely taken for granted and abused our privilege of engaging in a consumerist culture. This interview with Jim Puckett, the founder of the Basel Action Network, is a wake up call to an immense injustice: Our ability to constantly use new technology and dispose of old technology is made possible at the expense of other people’s health and wellbeing.

In our first class discussion regarding the definition of public health, one of the most common descriptions of public health was its interdisciplinary nature. In order to prevent the health of these individuals who are employed under this unethical practice from deteriorating further, education, environmental and health policies, and legal action must be engaged together. An education campaign can be implemented among these communities who process electronic waste – they can be taught to use protective clothing and masks and to refrain from dumping chemicals into the rivers (or neutralize them prior to) and contaminating the groundwater. However, this intervention comes with high costs. To tackle the root of the problem (the heart of public health), legislation must be written to penalize or discourage “recyclers” from externalizing the cost of appropriately processing electronic waste by exporting to under-developed countries. While some states have passed laws banning the disposal of electronic waste in landfills, only the federal government has control over foreign trade. Sadly, the United States hasn’t even ratified the Basel Convention, which is an international treaty aiming to reduce the exporting of toxic wastes to developing nations.

This public health and social justice issue explains fully the mandatory coexistence of private and public responsibilities for health. As consumers, we must be held accountable to research the legitimacy of electronic recycling companies. In addition, the risk of cyber crime must be publicized to increase the incentive of checking the practices of these corporations and discourage irresponsible electronic recycling. There is also the possibility of raising consumer demand for toxin-free electronics. Although the Basel Action Network is establishing an accreditation system for electronic recycling companies, more questions remain to be answered in order for this problem to be alleviated. Because of the recent economic downturn, even governmental agencies are irresponsibly disposing of their electronic waste to cut cost. How viable is it then for activists to push for federal action when doing the right thing is indeed more expensive than what we can currently afford? Even if this issue is successfully eliminated, how can we preserve and promote the wellbeing of the communities who survived on (meager) incomes from processing old electronics? Where can they find new (and safe) employment?

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