The Majalla: E-waste, Egypt and the Digital Divide

Around two months ago, 170 nations met in Spain for a UN environmental conference and agreed to accelerate a ban on exporting e-waste from rich nations to the developing world. For green campaigners and the marginalised poor forced to sort toxic e-waste in developing countries, this was a resounding success. This hard-won victory, however, wasn’t celebrated by all.

Some e-waste campaigners raised concerns that a blanket ban would in fact starve highly skilled repairers in the developing world of vital resources. This in turn would mean more e-waste was sent to landfills rather than being re-used and access to computers for those less well-off in developing countries would be undermined.

E-waste, or electronic waste, is believed to be the largest illegally traded toxic hazardous waste in the world. The UN estimates that up to 50 million tonnes of electrical and electronic goods are thrown away every year and this figure is set to rise to 73 million by 2015. Part of the reason for the continued rise is that emerging economies have flourishing consumer electronic markets but lack the infrastructure to dispose of e-waste effectively.

In the UAE, research has shown that between 75 and 85 percent of e-waste is sent directly to landfill or an incinerator. And although there are no concrete statistics on the amount of e-waste produced, with the high per capita income of residents and an electronics market valued at USD 2.8 billion, there is no doubt that a real problem is slowly gaining momentum.

BAN, an environmental NGO that campaigns for a ban on e-waste imports into the developing world states that accurate statistics on the amount of e-waste traded worldwide are not available. They explain that as most of the trade is believed to occur illegally, they rely on evidence from independently tracking shipping containers from the US and Europe. What their anecdotal evidence shows is that whilst some e-waste shipping containers do contain some useful materials, most of it is waste which ends up on informal dumps where it contaminates the surrounding land and water resources, and negatively impacts the local people’s health.

In fact, one aspect of e-waste that has been well documented is its highly toxic nature. Electronic circuit boards contain cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead and computer plastics are coated with polybrominated flame retardants which are some of the nastiest chemicals around—especially when burnt.

“I’ve definitely seen children mining e-waste for raw metals … It’s an area of concern, and stricter enforcement of environmental laws is necessary,” says Kyle Wiens, who is currently touring through Africa and Asia for a documentary on repairers called Fixer. “But the repair industry isn’t like that at all. Fixing things is a skill, and it takes time to get good. Conditions are quite safe because people need a predictable, safe working environment to do repairs.”

During his time in Cairo, Wiens met highly skilled and professional repairers who were able to fix everything from mobile phones, computers, TVs and cars. “Mechanics in Cairo are some of the most imaginative people in the world but they need raw materials to work with. Attempts to cut them off from their supply chain [via a ban on exports] will harm the Egyptian economy in the long run.”

According to recent statistics, the number of Egyptians using the internet increased 39 percent to 13.5 million between 2008 and 2009, and the number of people who owned a mobile phone went from 30 million to 48 million in the same period. The repair industry has no doubt played an important role in making such technologies available to those Egyptians on the lowest wages.

For Wiens, a ban is simply too blunt a tool to deal with the complexities of the e-waste problem and may even aggravate it by pushing more electronic products into landfills rather than repairers workshops. He also adds that “it’s rather disingenuous to ban imports of products that could be refurbished and create local jobs while allowing imports of new, equally toxic electronics.”

Jim Puckett from BAN, however, argues that “a lot of nasty imports are justified by the repair pretext” which creates hazardous waste (all be it over the course of a few years) that cannot be dealt with safely or effectively in developing countries. Anyone stating that they want to help developing nations bridge the digital divide by sending them electronic cast-offs also need to be questioned, as “e-waste is a toxic waste that needs to be dealt with and not traded with—we need to stop exporting our problems to others to deal with.”

There are distinct advantages of shipping off e-waste from developed nations, where environmental legislation makes it expensive to deal with properly, to regions where regulation is not so stringent. However, these e-waste products do have some value and create jobs and cheaper products for those in the developed world. What happens to these products when they reach the end of their extended life remains problematic. Clearly, there needs to be a balance so that developing countries can make the most of e-waste but also protect themselves from those only interested in ‘exporting their problems’.

Tackling the West’s throwaway culture so that computers are not replaced every two years is one way of dealing with the growing e-waste problem and the temptation to dump it on others. Manufacturing computers and electronics so that they are not toxic in the first place is another solution—and one that can be done, insists Puckett. The big task, however, is to place more responsibility for the recycling and repair of electronics in the hands of manufactures. As e-waste campaigners state, this is ultimately the most efficient way to ensure that e-waste in the developed and developing world alike is dealt with properly—and not traded or dumped in irresponsible ways.

:: Originally published at The Majalla.

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