1st World Trash, 3rd World Victims

In Development, Environment, Global Issues on December 29, 2010 at 3:44 am

How does American waste end up in a toxic dump in Nairobi, Kenya?

With another decade coming to an end, I decided to finally sell my first laptop by the end of this month. While trying to figure out how best to get rid of it, I came across this somewhat-horrifying picture of this toxic garbage dump in Nairobi, Kenya. This led me to wonder, “Exactly HOW would my laptop, of all things, end up thousands of miles away in a dump like this one?” A little bit of research yielded the true story behind how far our trash actually travels.

Americans own more computers than the rest of the world!

Let’s start with why this issue is important. Americans are the world’s biggest consumers- the US has 5% of the world’s population, but consumes 30% of the world’s electricity and creates 30% of the world’s waste. Americans now own about 3 billion electronic products. Why this instinct to buy buy buy? We can almost say it’s historically ingrained in our society. Ideologically speaking, The American Dream itself is rooted in the belief that with hard work, you can become rich. And when you become rich, you can, and do, buy everything you want. America has also historically benefited

The production cycle as we know it today

from the vastness of its geography, abundance of immigrant labor, and industrializing relatively early (only second to England). This phenomenon has helped shape our product cycle into basically three phases: Extraction, Manufacturing, Transportation, Utilization and Disposal. Recycling was added later to this production cycle, but the main idea still remains. For companies to make a profit out of this experimental model, it isn’t sufficient for them to sell just one product. They have to sell a whole range of products. And to double their profits, they need to keep you coming back. Enter the idea of planned obsolescence: designing a product so it will become obsolete within a few months, or years. We’ve all owned mp3 players, textbooks, clothes… products that are destined to become old by next year, next edition, or next season! This gives the company just en0ugh time to bring about a new model or update, causing more people to dump/sell off the previous model, and buy the new one. It’s another way to pull more people into a toxic consumer cycle of buy, buy, buy. This has thus led to Americans creating almost 2 kg of trash, per person, per day!

For those of you wondering why no one spoke out about this when the idea was first proposed, surprisingly enough, people did!  Engineers early on pondered how ethical it really was to settle for short-term products rather than longer-lasting, better quality ones. But their decision to produce inferior quality ones was not based solely on their salaries– it was based on America’s decision too! Engineers were forced to look at what type of products would benefit American markets, and thus most of the American people, and the verdict was clear–shoddy products would lead to more spending, and thus, healthier economies.  With ideologies such as “Planned existence spans of product may well become one of the greatest economic boosts to the American economy since the origination of time payments,” engineers themselves were convinced that more Americans would benefit from the idea than others. And thus crappy products began being produced.

Along with planned obsolescence, let’s not forget the power of modern marketing and advertising. Ad agencies reported an annual profit of $28.4 billion in 2010, which was a “7.5% slump” (imagine what that means for a healthy ad economy!)  Americans are being bombarded with commercials about better and more expensive products all the time. In fact, by age 65, an average American would have watched 2 million commercials, not including online ads on sites like Hulu and VEVO. Online ad views actually reached a peak of 33.2 billion this year! With this barrage of “buy new, feel better” ads coming our way, it’s no surprise that we succumb to market pressures pretty soon, and end up buying more stuff we don’t need.

And what do we do with the old stuff? What would you do if you had to get rid of, say, a laptop, or a battery, or a broken radio? Most of us throw it in the trash can without a second glance. The more environmentally conscious folks would put it in the “Hazardous Waste” collection box at a local recycling facility, or find a way to reuse it.

The EPA has surprisingly little control over household hazardous wastes.

Honestly, I was surprised to find that there are few regulations regarding how toxic or hazardous waste is to be dealt with. Take a look at these excerpts, directly from the EPA:

At present, there is no Federal mandate to recycle e-waste.

Some electronics (such as color CRTs computer monitors, color CRT TV tubes, and smaller items such as cell phones and other “hand-helds”) test “hazardous” under Federal law. If so, they are subject to special handling requirements under Federal law, subject to certain exemptions

Whole unused circuit boards are considered unused commercial chemical products, which are unregulated.

Used computer monitors or televisions generated by households are not considered hazardous waste and are not regulated under Federal regulations.

State laws differ, of course. California has some of the most stringent laws surrounding recycling, and it has proven to be very effective: better classification has led to better regulation, streamlining and recycling processes. But the laws aren’t uniform across the country.

Seems irresponsible to me.

At the end of the day, even with these regulations in place, American companies find it too expensive and risky to implement recycling programs here. Instead, as with other jobs, they outsource waste management to the developing world, where rules are few, and everyone can be bribed to comply. Companies like OAKLEAF seem to provide “intelligent waste management solutions”, but seem eerily quiet as to where the trash actually goes. Reports estimate that about 50 – 80% of e-waste in America is actually shipped OUT of the country, which is an appalling number to me. Companies must have a legal obligation to recycle materials and dispose of them without any damage to anyone, not just the first world.

So all this waste gets shipped overseas, and ends up in giant dumps like the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi. According to the Environmental News Service, over 2,000 metric tons of waste gets dumped here everyday, and children scour the waste for valuables (usually metals) that they can sell to earn money. This involves pouring acids on metals and dealing with these noxious chemicals often with no protection. Majority of the children living around this area suffer from lead poisoning, and respiratory diseases, but need the money to feed their families. Such dumps lead to pollution of groundwater in these areas. As seen in another dump site in Guiyu, China, water needs to be transported from another town, and many people can’t afford to buy and drink that either. This Frontline report highlights toxic dumping in Ghana, which faces similar ghastly conditions.

Keep planned obsolescence in mind while buying.

It’s easy to look at all these phenomena and feel powerless against million-dollar companies. But let me be the first to tell you how to pull yourself out of this cycle. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Buy less and buy smart:  Every time you’re out shopping for the next new gadget or product, ask yourself if it’s something you really need. Chances are, you probably don’t. You’re making a powerful consumer decision simply by choosing not to buy something. While shopping, distinguish between products that are Designed for the Dump and Designed to Last, and buy products that you KNOW are going to last you a while: timeless clothing, laptops with replaceable parts, etc. Keep in mind that with every product you buy, you’re CREATING waste. If possible, try to research where the product was produced, and try to buy American products– chances are, if it was produced here, it’ll be recycled here. There are resources on the internet as well: here’s a good consumer guide on solutions for clothes, textbooks, gaming systems, and other items destined for the dump in our everyday lives.
  • Your everyday decisions can prevent this.

    Recycle responsibly: Keep in mind, what you throw out unwittingly twice a week may be causing someone in the third world cancer. As a first world consumer, even decisions as simple as what, how and where you recycle holds a lot of power down the chain. Organizations like the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition are doing their best to tell people how to recycle e-wastes and other hazardous materials, but they need people to listen and comply. Be a conscious citizen, and take it upon yourself to recycle those printer cartridges, batteries and old electronics. It’s easy to give things a second life:, and all provide easy recycling options. Companies like Dell and HP also offer free recycling for customers who have bought their products. Even if it’s slightly more expensive, keep in mind, you’re saving people’s lives down the chain. Also, look up the laws in your state regarding wastes recycling, and do your best to comply with them. Here’s a state-by-state guide.

  • Get your favorite companies to design products for life: This one’s a little bit harder, but with enough pressure, it cannot go unseen. Write to your company (most of them have Contact Us forms on their websites) and tell them that you want better recycling options, and sustainable, eco-friendly products in their lines. Such options are NOT beyond our reach; they’ve just been stifled by market reasons. Innovation and variety still drives our markets, and with enough pressure, companies will have to meet this consumer demand.
  • Get Congress to stop illegal dumping in developing countries:  HR 6252, or the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, was referred to Congressional committees earlier this year. Contact your representative to let him/her know how you feel about toxic dumping, and get him/her to sponsor this bill!

Thanks for reading! Leave a comment, and happy recycling! 🙂

PS: I highly recommend reading Tackling High-Tech Trash: The E-Waste Explosion and What We Can Do About It. Excellent and comprehensive report for further research.

  1. […] because the products are DESIGNED to be unique to the company, model, make and year. The concept of planned obsolescence is upheld across the board by car companies, all the way down to the car parts. Also, mostly, when […]

  2. […] With another decade coming to an end, I decided to finally sell my first laptop by the end of this month. While trying to figure out how best to get rid of it, I came across this somewhat-horrifying picture of this toxic garbage dump in Nairobi, Kenya. This led me to wonder, "Exactly HOW would my lapto … Read More […]

  3. […] 1st World Trash, 3rd World Victims :in-depth article talking about how our e-waste and “recycling” methods are actually affecting the 3rd World Countries […]

  4. Excellent article Aish! This is a total RT and link that will be posted in the “Things to read about” section of my weekly blog posts 😀

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