The Implications of Electronic Waste on the Environment Using Child Labor from a Third World Country
This paper evaluates the potential impact of the recently promulgated legislation requiring the recycling of electronic waste (e-waste) focusing on political, social and ethical issues. Although recycling e-waste is the primary way to minimize its negative effects on the environment, the recycling procedures and methods including the choice of the recycling site, source of labor, working conditions, and the choice of recycling processes must be aligned carefully with the overall goal of environmental protection. The current recycling strategy involving the shipping of e-waste to a developing country, employing child labor to recycle the waste and using environmentally harmful processes such as burning hazardous waste is counterproductive.
To begin with, the shipping of e-waste to developing countries raises serious political issues because e-waste trafficking is illegal. E-waste producers in Western Europe and North America export e-waste to Asian countries, Africa and South America for recycling and dumping (Hawari & Hassan, 2008, p. 13). The main concern here is that the parties involved in e-waste trade only want to make quick profits at the expense of the environment. In fact, illegal e-waste trade is a fast growing multi-million dollar investment. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) (2011, p. 4), groups engaged in illegal e-waste smuggling are also likely to be involved in other criminal activities such as human trafficking, drugs trafficking, theft and fraud. In addition, recycling factories rely on cheap labor, which may explain the widespread use of child labor in the e-waste recycling sector (Johri, 2008, p. 80). The use of child laborers is also a serious legal and political concern since child labor is illegal. However, the lack of regulation of e-waste recycling in most developing countries renders these crimes and hazardous practices rampant. Therefore, producers of e-waste should stop exporting e-waste and instead recycle the waste on site.
Besides the political and legal issues, the current approach to e-waste recycling has numerous social implications for the third world country. First, the recycling process directly puts people’s lives in danger because the industry is largely informal and relies heavily on cheap materials, simple methods and cheap labor. Workers expose themselves to potentially harmful metals such as mercury and arsenic since they dissemble the waste manually (Lundgren, 2012, p. 19). Crushing of wastes generate metallic and plastic dusts that cause respiratory problems. The burning of non-metal components of e-waste such as polyvinylchloride emits gases that are hazardous to workers and other people near the recycling site. In some cases, recyclers use cyanide and other poisonous substances to purify the waste without appropriate protective gear and thus risk their lives.
Besides the danger to humans, the recycling process yields environmental contaminants. E-waste contains many substances that leach into the soil, air and water such as lead, mercury and other metals, non-metals such as plastics and gaseous contaminants such as dioxins resulting from the burning of plastic waste (Lundgren, 2012, p. 18). The pollution of the environment over a long time can result in the destruction of ecosystems and destabilization of the natural life support processes. Furthermore, the e-waste recycling industry in third world countries is labor intensive, yet it does not offer adequate protection and proper working conditions to its many workers. Many of these workers are child laborers who risk their lives all day long for low wages. For example, injuries and deaths are commonplace among workers in Apple factories in China (The New York Times, 2012).
The fact that e-waste causes harm to humans and the environment renders e-waste recycling an ethical issue. The main ethical problem of shipping e-waste to third world countries is environmental racism—the unequal distribution of the costs of environmental policies such that certain regions reap huge benefits at the expense of others (Bullard, 2002, p. 2). Developed countries are the main producers of e-waste and the main beneficiaries since they earn from both e-waste production and sale. Third world countries are the main recipients of e-waste who only gain by recycling or reselling the waste. However, third world countries lack the technology and other resources necessary to recycle e-waste in environmentally friendly ways. Therefore, the environmental costs of recycling e-waste in third world countries including the direct and indirect harm to humans outweigh the gains.
Owing to the serious negative implications for sending e-waste overseas for recycling, the law should prohibit the sale of e-waste and require all corporations that produce e-waste to maintain an environmentally friendly e-waste management program. Producers of e-waste should bear the burden of managing their waste instead of selling it to poorly equipped recyclers in third world countries where the process causes more harm than good. In addition, third world countries should invest in environmental protection and regulate their e-waste recycling industries strictly to prevent illegal trafficking of illegal waste, hazardous exposure of workers and the use of child labor.
Bullard, R. (2002). Poverty, pollution and environmental racism: strategies for building healthy and sustainable communities. Retrieved July 21, 2014 from http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/PovpolEj.html
Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), 2011. System failure: The UK’s harmful trade in electronic waste. Retrieved July 21, 2014 from http://www.greencustoms.org/docs/EIA_E-waste_report_0511_WEB.pdf
Hawari, M. & Hassan, M. (2008). E-waste: Ethical implications for education and research. ILLUM Engeneering Journal 9(2), 11-26.
Johri, R., & Energy and Resources Institute. (2008). E-waste: Implications, regulations, and management in India and current global best practices. New Delhi: Energy and Resources Institute.
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The New York Times, (2012). In China, human costs are built into an iPad. The New York Times (January 26). Retrieved July 21, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0