One of the defining features of humans is their ability to mold the materials available to them in their environment into tools. The oldest evidence of tool making found has been dated to some 2.5 million years ago. From there it took our ancestors all the way till around 5,000 years ago to make another significant jump in technological advancement. But from then on we see technological development advancing at an exponential rate. In his essay published at the turn of the century, Raymond Kurzweil predicted that ‘we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress;’ and we can see the proof of his statement all around us. We live in a world today in which technological breakthroughs are occurring on an almost monthly basis. We are consumed by the constant desire to get the latest gadgets. We want them upgraded, smaller, better, faster, and sometimes, we just want them in a new colour. But have we ever stopped to wonder where our now archaic desktops go? What the fate of our mp3s and our 3310 Nokias is? It is easy for us to dismiss fashions and old technologies from existance, but the physical proof of them can not be got rid of as easily. With the rapid obsolescence of technology, E-waste has become a major global issue. Not only is it a problem because of the sheer mass of the waste, but it is also a problem because of its toxicity. As a result a conflict arises between the environment and technology. Do we continue to harm the environment for the sake of the centuries of human effort and development that the advanced level of technology today is a product of? Or do we look to limit it and protect the environment instead?
To understand this problem properly, we need to first see how the world has been dealing with it up until now. Initially, e-waste was treated in the same way that conventional waste was treated in; by dumping it in landfills. However as it built up at an increasingly worrying rate and toxins from it started leaking into the environment, there was a call for tighter legislation and a pressure to recycle. While some recyclers did genuinely try to recycle the material, a large amount of this ‘recycling’, an estimated 50 to 80 percent, took the form of exporting the e-waste to third world countries. Since the cost of safely recycling e-waste is high and the efficiency rates of extraction of useable raw materials from it is low, it is almost inevitable that e-waste will move down ‘the economic path of least resistance’ (Exporting Harm: The high-tech trashing of Asia). Third world countries are in no position to be able to effectively regulate the e-waste coming into their country, and are even less capable of recycling it in an environmentally safe manner. Once the e-waste gets there, it is dumped in the open where workers extract raw materials from them through a number of methods, including simply burning them and treating them with acids such as nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. This second process is used as a way of extracting the gold that is used to plate certain computer parts. As a result, the surrounding soil, air and water are contaminated by the acids, as well as affecting the health of the workers. It can cause pulmonary edema, circulatory failure and even death because of the inhalation of the fumes from the acids. This process usually takes place by a river, so the acids that are washed away by it also affect the oceanic life and the river banks. The following substances in e-waste have potentially harmful effects on the environment and individuals; lead, cadmium, mercury, barium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), beryllium, carbon black, phosphor and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s). An article published in PNAS in 2009 reported that the PBDE levels in workers in Guiyu, a dumping ground for e-waste in China, was ‘more than 100 times higher than in Europe’.
When this issue of dumping and its effects were brought into the limelight, the Basel Convention was created to deal with the issues it highlighted. In 1994, its signatories agreed to a complete ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the first world to the third world. However, its effectiveness proved to be limited, as third world countries did not, and still do not, have the resources to enforce it's laws. As a result, large amounts of e-waste were being imported illegally. In a 2009 PNAS article, Eddy Zeng, an organic geochemist, said that 70% of the world's e-waste was being processed illegally in China. Computer units are also legally exported in working condition, for re-use, to third world countries, but this also adds to e-waste as their life ends in these countries and they end up as simply another contribution to e-waste. This problem has also been exacerbated by the consumers of electronics in these countries themselves, whose old hardware is also dumped at these sites. A 2010 article in Nature News estimated that there were 180 million units of computers being dumped worldwide and that this number would increase to up to 1 billion units by 2030.
So what needs to be done about this problem? We need to look for alternative solutions, as we can see that simply laying out what can not be done does not solve the problem. Technological advancement is also a fact, it can not be stopped, and should not be either. But the producers of these products should be made responsible for the safe disposal of their products. Their responsibility to their products should extend through to the end of the products life cycle. Another approach would be to make manufacturers use less toxicants in their electronics, as all forms of recycling them simply involve moving them from one form to another. Technological advancement should be carried out in a responsible and sustainable manner. The level of technological advancement present in the world today is a testament to the human intellect and its ability to conceive and create, but this ability should extend to take account of the affects of these advances too.