“Quick quick quick -- buy buy buy!”
The clock strikes midnight, and your fingers dash across the keyboard to pre-order the newest iPhone. From camping out at Apple stores to watching unboxing videos on YouTube, consumption has become its own form of entertainment. But in the rush to upgrade, we often forget to ask: What actually happens to old electronics?
The answer is complicated. In 2016, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste, a number that is only increasing. E-waste generated by wealthy countries like the U.S., Australia, and Europe is almost always outsourced to the Global South for recycling, where discarded machines are dismantled for parts and rare earth metals to be resold. Furthermore, regulators have consistently failed to curb illegal, unsafe operations. For example, European exporters smuggled waste to Nigeria in used car shipments, while Australian computers were dumped in illicit recycling centers in Thailand.
These informal e-waste economies have devastating environmental and health impacts on their communities. Many of the “recyclers” are children who pick apart electronics with their bare hands. Locals end up breathing the toxic fumes from discarded waste set on fire. Lead poisoning is common. And because many recycling operations are located in rural agricultural regions, air and water pollution poison crops, spreading toxins far and wide.
Global flows of e-waste are shaped by a messy web of policies, trade norms, and international watchdogs. Still, the developing world’s illegal waste economy has thrived by exploiting regulatory loopholes and escaping the public eye under the guise of “recycling.” We must call for the Global North to take greater responsibility for their waste -- or else end up scrapping lives along with our electronics.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.