Today is Sunday and all across America newspapers and circulars tout the latest and greatest electronic gadgetry at low enough prices to hopefully bring us out to buy them. MP3 players, HD televisions, printers, scanners, cell phones, PDA’s, home video games, you name it, they’ll sell it, and we are all supposed to want it.
While the Sunday sales may save a few bucks across the counter, they don’t put a dent in the cost on down the line these products create. As you may have guessed, I’m talking about electronic waste, or e-waste as it is better known. Where do the 130,000 computers thrown out every day in this country end up? How about the 100,000,000 cell phones we toss every year? Who deals with them and how does it affect them, and us?
Below is the answer. An excellent piece by 60 Minutes entitled The Wasteland, it investigates the Chinese city of Guiyu where some of Americas e-waste ends up. Scientific tests have shown Guiyu to have the highest levels of dioxin in the world and that 7 out of 10 of the cities children have too much lead in their bodies. The reason for this is simple. The e-waste that ends up in Guiyu is not cleanly dismantled in some high tech shop, but melted down in fields and burned by farmers who make $8 a day because they can no longer farm their land. It is truly a crime and sadly one in which we are complicit.
If the fact that a place like this exists is not enough for you, fear not, there’s more. The piece also investigates a recycling company in Denver. As 60 Minutes showed, their claims to deal with all materials on site were false, and in fact, they were cited for shipping CRT monitors to China, something which is illegal due to the high amounts of lead the units contain. And this was a reputable firm that had the city contract no less!
So what’s a good greenie to do? I don’t mean to be depressing, but it really does get you down. I want to do the right thing, want to make sure all of my e-waste is taken care of in an environmentally friendly manner, but unless I quit my job and follow the trail I leave until every last molecule is accounted for, I can’t be sure.
The truth is, we don’t know what happens when these items leave our hands and in fact, have no control over who or what they harm. But we can control what we send out there. We can control what we buy and how. We can make the decision that the latest and greatest turnip twaddler may not be something we really need and that it is only going to make us happy until the next latest and greatest twaddler comes along. We can buy used instead of buying new. We can care for the few products we do deem necessary and use them longer. We can complain to companies that discontinue support on older products and let them know that we will not buy from them again. We can do a little work and ascertain, as best we can, that the e-waste facilities we visit are doing what’s right. And we can teach our children by example and show them that not buying the latest and greatest may not only not be that bad, but in fact may be much better.
Finally, we can write our elected leaders, send them pieces like The Wasteland, and ask them to pass legislation to fix the e-waste problems we are creating. Perhaps we will see a day where we force ourselves to deal with this problem by adding an extra fee on the price of a gadget that is designed to pay for its safe disposal. Sort of like the deposit on a can of soda. You buy a gadget and pay a small fee that is refunded only when the item is returned to the company that made it. If you use it till it dies, you get the deposit back. If you sell it used, the buyer pays you that fee, and gets their refund when they deliver it back to its birthplace. The companies then, through oversight and transparency, would be responsible for dismantling them safely, reusing as much as possible, and dealing with what’s leftover in an environmentally sensitive manner.
Of course what I’m talking about is Cradle to Cradle thinking and there are much smarter folks who have explained this better than I. My point though is this. These companies only make these things because we buy them. We buy these things because we think we need them. I want a new turnip twadller, but am I really ok stepping into that cycle if it means some kid in China has no chance at a healthy future? I don’t know about you, but for me, the answer is no. I have the power to change this and that power lies in the choices I make.
Check out the video. Connect the dots. Make some noise.
Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll do the right thing.”