The Gist

  • Mirage reality: The Global North's perceived green and sustainable practices often exacerbate pollution and waste in the Global South.
  • Ships of doom: E-waste dumping by the Global North in poorer countries contributes to environmental degradation and health hazards.
  • The consequences: The hidden environmental costs of modern technology production and disposal are largely ignored, perpetuating unsustainable practices.

In the rich Global North, we like to boast about the dematerialization of our economies, about “green growth” and how we’re decoupling our material use from our energy and waste production. We’re so clever and sustainable. And yet. And yet.

And yet the Global North is a mirage when it comes to being truly green or genuinely sustainable. Europe and the US rose to prominence on the mass exploitation of cheap materials from the Global South, in the process becoming by far the biggest producers of CO2 and waste in the world.

Today, in many ways, things are worse. In the past, we “only” extracted the materials from poorer countries. Now, we get them to manufacture as much as possible there, driving up their pollution and waste levels.

Related Article: E-Waste Recycling Should Be a Last Resort

E-Waste Dumping Practices: Ships of Doom

And when, in our planned obsolescence dystopia, we quickly throw away products that are deliberately designed so that they cannot be recycled, we send that toxic trash in container ship after container ship to the Global South. So notorious has this Global North practice become that there is a name for these ships. They’re called “Ships of Doom.”

People like Kaustubh Thapa give me hope. Kaustubh is finishing his doctorate at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His collaborative research in Nigeria, China and Vietnam incorporates justice, equity and sustainability for a fairer EU waste trade and a just circular economy transition. I asked Kaustubh if he could give me a bit of history in relation to the European dumping of e-waste in Nigeria and other African countries.

Related Article: Get Rid of Garbage Data: 4 Ways to Ensure Quality Data

Learning Opportunities

The Environmental Impact of Modern Technology Production

“Things travel,” Kaustubh told me. “Waste travels. Just like our avocados and bananas travel. Waste and secondhand products also travel. And this kind of traveling has not been a recent phenomenon. It has been going on at least, I know, since the '80s when waste was dumped in other countries, especially the toxic waste which was quite expensive to take care of in the countries where the toxic waste was produced. It was sent somewhere else because it was cheaper. Usually, people found places where there was no toxic waste regulation so that they could save money and this led to the formation of the Basel Convention, which also partly guides the shipment of electronic waste. It’s still a big issue, despite international conventions, despite newer policies, despite a focus on a just transition.”

E-Waste, Trash and Modern Technology

Modern technology is a world of trash. Modern technology is a world of waste. Modern technology is a world where the materials that are used to produce the technology are treated with contempt. In fact, it’s worse than that. We don’t even see the materials. When we hold a phone in our hands, we don’t think we’re holding 70 materials that created 90 kg of waste and 60 kg of CO2 and used 1,400 liters of water to manufacture. We are ignorant of the materials because the phones' designers are cynical in their designs.

Because these designers deliberately design these phones so that they cannot be repaired, so that their materials cannot be reused. There’s no money in e-waste, or very, very little. And that’s why most electronics don’t get recycled. And that’s why much of the electronics from rich countries end up being dumped in poor countries where they will poison the air, the water, the soil, the fish, the people, the animals.

Final Thoughts on Outsourcing Toxic Waste

This is the root of the multiple environmental crises we face today. We thought we could outsource our pollution and waste. We thought we could throw our toxic trash somewhere far away in some poor country, in a poor part of town, or in some rural, country place where the locals would be too ignorant to notice.

When it comes to toxic waste, there is no “away.” It comes back in the rain, in the rivers, in the seas, in the wind, in the vegetables and the meat.

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