- Given the increased use of electronics, the problem of e-waste is bound to get worse.
- But trade bans can cut jobs and push recycling to the black market.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
You have no doubt seen images like the following: an Asian child sorting through in a pile of junk electronics, a young Nigerian burning bundles of copper wires, an Indian woman soaking circuit boards in acid.
It’s a fact that computers and other electronics are often exported from rich countries to be recycled in China, India, Thailand and Nigeria by unregistered business operations (“backyard”) that use primitive recycling process. The hazards are serious. The mere presence of these goods can contaminate the air, water and soil. Wire burning emits dioxins and other pollutants; acids can burn.
Backyard recycling is a clear and present danger, and given increased use of electronics around the world, the problem appears slated to get worse without public response.
The prevailing solution bandied about by many is to ban the trade in end-of-life electronics. In fact, the European Union has banned exports of end-of-life electronics. The U.S. Congress is currently considering H.R. 2595, a bill that would ban the export of end-of-life electronics from the United States. China, India and Indonesia have largely banned imports of used and scrap electronics. And some countries such as Thailand and Mexico only allow imports of used electronics.
But contrary to popular belief, banning electronic waste is not the answer, and here are three big reasons why:
1. Trade bans have negative economic and social impacts by cutting jobs in the refurbishment sector and reducing supply to used markets.
Many people in the developing world make a living from fixing and selling used electronics. Not only is this a source of employment where it is greatly needed, but it also increases access to computers and other electronics that play an important role in the development and education of poor people.
Some export bans such as H.R. 2595 in the United States require that electronics are refurbished in the developed world, making used electronics prohibitively expensive for many, and closing down refurbishment businesses in the developing world.
2. Trade bans push the backyard recycling towards the black market.
While China officially banned imports of end-of-life electronics in 2002, smuggling has replaced official trade and electronics reportedly continues to flow into the country much as before the ban. Substantial amounts of end-of-electronics are still exported from Europe, partly through internal trade within Europe to areas with lax enforcement.
The enforcement challenge also increases the involvement of organized crime. In 2002 members of U.S. environmental NGOs visiting the Chinese town of Guiyu, an informal recycling center, were free to walk the village and interview local workers. Since the ban organized crime has become involved and reporters visiting the town are now driven out.
3. Within a decade, more e-waste will be generated in the developing world compared to the developed, waste that without other interventions will be recycled with high environmental impacts.
The underlying premise of a trade ban is that imports from the developed world are the main problem. But research conducted by myself and my colleagues shows that by around 2016, the developing world will generate more waste computers than the developed world. Global volumes of computer e-waste are expected to triple between 2010 and 2025 and by around 2025, the developing world will generate double the developed world’s waste computers. Not surprisingly, developing Asia, due to its high population and rapid growth, is a major contributor to this future waste stream.
Export bans will not only fail to solve the problem of informal recycling, but also cause negative impacts on vulnerable people in the developing world. A broader policy agenda is needed. Surprisingly, there has been no official policy action to directly clean up the impacts of backyard recycling.
One option could be to divert recycling fees in order to pay backyard recyclers to turn in components that are dangerous to process. The United States and other rich countries have a role to play in providing financial and technical support.
Eric Williams is a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University in Tempe. He helps run the IT and Environment Initiative and has testified at a hearing on e-waste held by the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. His views are not necessarily the views of Discovery News.