Few things can galvanize a neighborhood quite like trash. It’s a classic community problem—everyone creates lots of garbage on a daily basis, but no one wants a trash dump next to their neighborhood, or anywhere near them for that matter. Just open up the possibility of a landfill in the area and watch how quickly people join together in common cause to oppose it. Everyone wants the same thing—send the trash I produce to someone else’s backyard.
Some communities in the world never even make that choice, and you and I have a lot to do with it. Ghana is a small West African nation, suffering from deep poverty with little economic growth. It has become the final destination for the millions of tons in electronic waste that Americans produce every year. Because e-waste disposal is regulated in the US, it’s cheaper to send it elsewhere than to process it. The natural desire to send our trash to someone else’s neighborhood also happens on a global scale.
As a result, poor communities must deal with the dark side of industrialization, even though they are far from equipped to handle it. We enjoy the convenience of technology, like the ability to print hundreds of; pages with laser toners while they deal with the empty cartridges after we’re done. Agbogbloshie dump in Accra is one example. There, destitute children scour mountains of electronic waste, hoping to scrape a little value from what they find. Breaking apart old appliances and televisions, they look for copper wire or salvageable metal that they can sell for a few dollars. Some build fires to help break the appliances apart, making it easier to remove what they are looking for. In the process, they release toxic chemicals, harming themselves and their environment.
Of course, these toxic chemicals have even broader repercussions. Agbogbloshie dump is located near one of the largest food markets in the city. Ghana also experiences heavy rains every year, washing toxic metals and other chemicals used in electronics into the river that runs into an ocean lagoon. Where the lagoon used to support significant fishing, the poisoning has now killed anything living in the lagoon and affected life far into the sea. The ground in this area has also become infertile because of toxic run-off. One of the dumping areas is used as a holding pen for cattle that are then slaughtered and sold in the local market. E-waste exported from the US and other industrialized countries is destroying this community by harming it where it is most vulnerable—children, public health and the environment.
Technically, it is not illegal for American companies to export e-waste to other countries.
Even a lot of the supposed e-waste “recycling programs” wind up sending the electronics they collect over sees, so instead of actually recycling the materials, they are just passed off to harm other people . Of course, the current legal situation paves abuse by regulating waste processing enough to make it expensive, and leaves the door open for careless disposal elsewhere. Investigations have found computers and trashed appliances that came from government agencies, and even from the EPA. The European Union has been somewhat more responsible, making it illegal to export e-waste. Still, several studies have found that this requirement is widely violated and e-waste can be found regularly shipping out of European ports.
Without systemic changes from industrialized nations, e-waste will continue to make its way across the world and into the backyards of communities that are too poor to resist. By sending this trash elsewhere, wealthy nations are willfully unaware of the consequences of their choices. It’s time for the people who make the trash to deal with it—within their own borders.