Everything has a value in India, nothing is wasted.
E-waste dealer, Bangalore.
The ship left a pier on the Hudson River with one name, I don’t know what is was but it got changed three months later off the West African coast. Then they changed it again. This was somewhere in the Philippines.
Don DeLillo, Underworld.
Write by W.A.S.T.E. The government will open it if you use the other. The dolphins will be mad. Love the dolphins.
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
As you can probably tell, I’ve been thinking about waste. About e-waste, in particular.
Waste is an enormous, growth industry. E-waste especially so. Perhaps the only other industry that has grown so rapidly in recent times is security (since 9/11).
And yet, both waste and security, are invisible industries. They must, if they are to succeed, remain unseen. Consumers (ie. you & me) don’t want to be reminded of our throw-aways. We need to be free, unburdened, so that we can go and buy new products. We never want to see our waste again. Like flushing something down the toilet, we need to know that it won’t come up again, else we would be immediately on the phone to the plumber.
But that is exactly what is happening. Our shit, our waste, is rising to the surface. You can’t simply flush things out of existence. For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Think about a typical e-product: the iPhone for example. Each and every iPhone is assembled in California from numerous independently constructed parts originating in developing counties such as India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia etc. The product is consumed (by Westerners mainly) who then, when they are finished with it, throw it away. It then finds its way back to the developing nations that collectively made it.
What we throw away, with wilful blindness, we presume others will deal with. The problems that we create, through our consumer demand, we handball on to those poorer and less equipped than us. The alienation of consumer from product (according to Marxist thinking) thus reaches its apotheosis: we don’t know where it came from, we don’t know where it will go to, and we don’t give a shit about either.
This is a great evil. Particularly given that e-waste, even more-so than normal waste, contains incredibly harmful toxins that destroy humans, animals, and whole environments. Read for a moment, if you will, this special report on the e-waste industry and its effect in Ghana.
The images I have posted above and below were taken by photographer Sopihe Gerrard. Sophie travelled around India documenting the e-waste industry in mega-cities lke New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore.
According to Sophie:
20 – 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually worldwide.
Each year, thousands of tons of old computers, mobile phones, batteries, cables, old cameras and other e-waste are dumped in landfill or burned. Thousands more are shipped, illegally, from Europe, the UK and the USA to India and other developing countries for ‘recycling’.
E-waste is highly toxic. It contains lead, cadmium, mercury, tin, gold, copper, PVC and brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus based flame retardants.
Recently, in Australia, the cabal-like forces that make up the e-waste industy have come under media scrutiny.
According to The Age (22 May 2009):
Illegal shipments of electronic waste from Australian homes – old computers, televisions and mobile phones – have been seized from cargo vessels, as part of a little-known smuggling trade that fuels child labour and toxic pollution in China.
Since the start of last year, 12 ships carrying “e-waste” have been intercepted leaving Australia for Asian ports without hazardous materials permits, including four so far this year, Australian Customs and the Department of Environment confirmed yesterday.
These seizures were the tip of the iceberg, recycling industry sources said.
Thankfully we are starting to wake up to this issue.
And manufacturers of e-products (like Apple and Dell etc) are becoming more responsible for their products. It remains to be seen whether we can turn the tide before environmental damage in places like India becomes irreversible.
Next time you open the bin and are poised to chuck something in, think again.