Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Downside of the Digital Tide

Written by on . Published in Africa's mobile future

According to the article “Africa’s Mobile Future,” the continent’s digital future is bright. New and innovative technologies will have the power to propel a large unemployed and undereducated demographic into accelerated growth. But within this new growth looms a tsunami of Africa’s own e-waste to exacerbate an already challenging issue: the dumping of e-waste from developed countries onto developing nations.

Without enforced regulations or laws implemented within the e-waste industry, developed countries can ship their e-waste for recycling at minimum cost and risk into developing countries, where e-waste brokers distribute it into local communities. Because of regulatory loopholes, the junk electronics are often classified as donations.

Left in the hands of local authorities with no resources or waste management technologies (or no authorities at all), this e-waste becomes an environmental and health hazard, like here in Ghana’s capital Accra, where children work in dark clouds of toxic smoke for less than a $1 a day, scavenging their way through vast piles of discarded tech junk to survive.

A starting place to tackle this problem could be the place of purchase of electronic devices. For example, in New York City there are still countless computers, printers, monitors etc. being dumped at the street side to be collected as ‘normal’ trash for landfills. To reduce this illegal practice, a deposit could be put on electronic devices which could be redeemed when they are returned and recycled properly in their country of purchase by government-supervised recycling facilities. This incentive would reduce the export of e-waste, thus creating jobs and nurturing a better culture of recycling. This in turn would free up resources in developing countries to better deal with their own e-waste management.

By the way, I wouldn’t mind a deposit on EVERYTHING, redeemed when returned or recycled. On plastic bags, chewing gum wrappers, shoes, clothing etc., to force people to consume less (or at least think before they consume), recycle and make sure they don’t litter… Of course that’s contrary to our consumer culture and needs a radical re-thinking of our habits… and maybe I am inclined to such thoughts because I grew up on a farm in Rumania where literally everything was re-used, recycled or transformed into something else, and even as a child I was aware of that and I have to admit: I LIKED it. And this “culture of recycling” is coming, because it is fun and creative to do so.

OK, let’s go back to reality: The ‘weaning’ of developing countries from our e-waste won’t happen on its own. It must go hand in hand with agreement among manufacturers of electronic devices to implement safe recycling procedures and plants in developing countries and to provide education about the hazards of e-waste recycling, thus creating safe jobs and protecting the environment.

The international community is aware of these problems, and tries to provide frameworks to regulate e-waste, as already outlaid in the “Basel Convention” from 1992 and in the consecutive “Rotterdam Convention” (1998) and the “Stockholm Convention” (2004). The latest results of the Basel Convention (…Cartagena – The United Nations is one step closer towards implementing a ban on the export of electronic waste from developed nations to the developing world….) can be seen here.

Links utilized in this article are primarily from United Nations sources.

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Egon Zippel Twitter: ezinnycEgon

1960 Born in Timisoara, Rumania 1964 Family moved to Germany 1981 – 83, 1986 - 88 University of Mannheim, Germany, communication design and advertising, diploma. 1984 – 85 Fulbright scholarship, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. and University of Texas, Austin. 1985 Traveling scholarship to Mexico from the Institute of International Education. 1985 – 86 New York, New York Institute of Technology, computer graphics 1986 – 91 Moves back to Germany, starts to work and show as conceptual artist. 1991 – 93 Moves to Milan, Italy. 1993 – 94 Postgraduate studies at Staedel Frankfurt Art Academy / Institute for New Media with Peter Weibel. 1996 – present Lives and works in New York.