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E-waste: America’s Electronics Feed the Global Digital Dump

Michelle Chen, The WIP
The landscape of Guiyu, a remote town in China’s Guangdong province, embodies a collision between past and future. Amid acidic plumes of smoke and vast mountains of trash, migrants scour for valuable scraps using their bare hands and simple tools. Yet Guiyu’s apocalyptic wasteland is a byproduct of the Information Age: the workers have eked out a living from dissecting cell phones, computers, televisions, and other toxic debris of the electronics industry.

The scene captures the paradoxes of global capitalism: as consumers snatch up cutting-edge gadgets, electronic waste piles up-and eventually spills into a fetid, borderless backyard overseas.

In 2007, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans churned out more than 370 million units of “end of life” electronic junk, ranging from keyboards to monitors to cell phones. Less than 20 percent was recycled. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that the world generated about 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste annually-a rate that is accelerating as more developing countries seize onto digital technology.

The same tide of globalization that fuels electronics consumption also helps shunt the e-waste hazard out of public view.
(27 April 2009)
Also at Common Dreams.

You recycle. Why doesn’t industry?

Joel Makower, Mother Jones
When I penned The Green Consumer in 1990, I helped advance the notion that we could solve our planet’s environmental problems by making good purchasing choices. That we could, in other words, shop our way to environmental health. “By choosing carefully, you can have a positive impact on the environment without significantly compromising your way of life,” I wrote. “That’s what being a Green Consumer is all about.”

I fought the good fight. Twenty years later, I’m thinking of waving the white flag. Green consumerism, it seems, was one of those well-intended passing fancies, testament to Americans’ never-ending quest for simple, quick, and efficient solutions to complex problems.

Today, it’s become clear that good purchasing choices are relatively few and far between, in terms of products whose environmental benefits are both obvious and significant.

… Perhaps you’ve seen the bottom circle, a pie chart containing nine slices, representing the composition of the stuff we throw out—a.k.a. municipal solid waste, or MSW. It shows that paper makes up about a third of our nation’s trash, while yard waste, food scraps, and plastics each represent about 12 percent. They are followed by smaller amounts of metals, rubber, textiles, leather, glass, wood, and other materials.

… But there’s another circle—a much, much bigger one, totaling about 10 billion tons of waste a year, or roughly 40 times the MSW pie. This circle doesn’t have an official name—indeed, it’s virtually unknown in environmental circles, and the EPA doesn’t publish it. I’ve dubbed it gross national trash, or GNT.

The biggest slice of the GNT pie—76 percent—consists of industrial wastes from pulp and paper, iron and steel, stone, clay, glass, concrete, food processing, textiles, plastics, and chemical manufacturing; water treatment; and other industries—in other words, from fabricating, synthesizing, modeling, molding, extruding, welding, forging, distilling, purifying, refining, and otherwise concocting the finished and semifinished materials of our manufactured world.
(May/June 2009)
Joel’s argument is that we cannot “buy our way” out of waste, that green consumerism has serious limitations.

Good point. But there’s still a lot we can do.

Don’t buy stuff you don’t need. Buy things that will last. Buy or barter used products. Repair things. Hardly earth-shaking suggestions, since this was common sense to our 19th century ancestors: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” -BA

Waste Not, Want Not

Bill McKibben, Mother Jones
We’ve finally reached a point where we can’t keep hyperconsuming—and that’s a good thing.

… There’s old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You’re making something useful, but you’re not using the latest technology, and so you’re spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it’s cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that’s easy to attack; it’s obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There’s actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be-that’s why we can swim in most of our rivers again.

There’s waste that comes from everything operating as it should, only too much so. If carbon monoxide (carbon with one oxygen atom) exemplifies pollution of the first type, then carbon dioxide (carbon with two oxygen atoms) typifies the second. Carbon monoxide poisons you in your garage and turns Beijing’s air brown, but if you put a catalytic converter on your tailpipe it all but disappears. Carbon dioxide doesn’t do anything to you directly-a clean-burning engine used to be defined as one that released only CO2 and water vapor-but in sufficient quantity it melts the ice caps, converts grassland into desert, and turns every coastal city into New Orleans.

There’s waste that comes from doing something that manifestly doesn’t need doing. A hundred million trees are cut every year just to satisfy the junk-mail industry. You can argue about cutting trees for newspapers, or magazines, or Bibles, or symphony scores-but the cascade of stuffporn that arrives daily in our mailboxes? It wastes forests, and also our time. Which, actually, is precious-we each get about 30,000 days, and it makes one a little sick to calculate how many of them have been spent opening credit card offers.

Or think about what we’ve done with cars.
(20 April 2009)
Also at Common Dreams.