To trace back to previous discussions surrounding Apple, Mike Daisey forced us to look inward and ask ourselves why we never wonder where the bright and shiny iPhones we use on a daily basis come from? I now would like to pose a similar question: when you trade in your old, run down electronic device after its two year warranty has expired in exchange for a bright and shiny new one, where do you think your waste goes? Last year I was enrolled in an introductory level environmental studies class. As an Accounting Major, it is not surprising that environmental issues, especially environmental issues regarding corporations, are not brought up often in our daily discussions. In this class, we discussed the pertinent social/ environmental issue of e-waste. On a much broader scale, we talked about the social impact of “global dumping”, a term which refers to e-waste that is not correctly sold to recycling companies with an environmentally safe recycling process. Instead, “recyclers” of these old, worn down, cracked, battery-fried iPhones look to turn a profit by selling these electronics to waste traders who export them to developing countries.
So, what social implications does this so-called global dumping create and why is this important? In an era of rapidly growing technology it is not long before a product becomes obsolete and quickly replaced with a newer and better one. Every year, 53 million tons of e-waste, the primary source being predominately developed nations with large amounts of disposable income. The impact of this digital dumping on the local communities is devastating. The toxic materials that make up these electronic products (such as arsenic, lead, mercury etc.) seep into the air, water, and soil after incinerated, resulting in increased respiratory illnesses, birth defects, cardiovascular disease, and cancer for both workers and those who live on the outskirts of digital dumping zones. The social implications of global dumping and e-waste span the areas of West Africa and Southeastern portions of China.
In search of solutions, I stumbled upon an episode of FRONTLINE, documenting a group of graduate journalism students’ journey to Ghana. On their quest to track a shadowy industry and its poor recycling habits, they are guided by a 13-year-old boy named Alex who cringes as the smog of plastic fills the air. He proceeds to show the journalists how both he and other young boys burn old foam off the tops of computers, and sell the leftover remains of iron and copper. Exporters of technology learned to exploit these underdeveloped nations by labeling junk computers “donations”, and masking it as an effort to bridge gap referred to as the digital divide. Containers mislabeled as “second hand goods” from well known brands- Dell, Microsoft, Sony, Phillips- leave the US filled with broken and old computers. In other words, not only are software corporations cutting corners to increase profit margins and cut expenses, but they are trying to pass their actions as a form of charity.
Is it possible to close the gap and cross the digital divide in an impactful way that doesn’t involve merely dumping junk technology in underdeveloped nations for them to dispose of? How can businesses solve this inherent problem of digital dumping? The answer is simple yet still has yet to be effectively implemented; to phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. Companies like Philips and Sony still refuse to accept responsibility for recycling their phased out products. Businesses play a large role in shaping our world and can have an incredible impact on shaping its future. By creating a software business whose core mission is dedicated to reduce its toxic chemicals, spend that extra dollar to properly recycle, and increase awareness of the relatively under wraps problem of digital dumping, developing a corporate image devoted to CSR should have exponentially better long-run results within a world that is gradually becoming more and more socially conscious.