There’s a reason why the ever-present “THEY” say “a picture’s worth a 1000 words.” It’s simply true that no matter how much you’ve read or heard about an issue, sometimes it doesn’t really resonate with you until you witness the impact on other beings. I noticed this particularly during recent screenings of Terra Blight as part of the 2014 ISTC Sustainability Film Festival (see also previous post). That documentary includes stunning images of e-waste dumps in Ghana, contrasting the lives of scrap workers there with the lives of folks in the US, who take technology for granted, often treating it as disposable because of its ubiquity. Images of computers at the Ghanian dumps with property tags from prominent US companies, governments, and organizations (including the US EPA) left quite an impression on film goers, and even elicited animated responses from the auditorium staff who had previewed the film before the event to ensure the DVD and AV system worked properly. I could have easily stood in front of the audience and lectured for an hour on sustainable electronics issues, but even with a stack of statistics, sound bytes, and sensible arguments, I couldn’t have made half the impression of those images. The best way to understand what sustainability is can be to see exactly what it isn’t.
Because of this simple truth, I like to share information on documentaries, photo essays, and other visual arts that help tell the stories of environmental and social impacts of technology and human activity. Images related to e-waste, like the aforementioned Terra Blight, often tell stories about one nation or group of nations impacting another. While these stories are true and important, repeated examples of such images can create a sense that e-waste social issues are exclusively about Western society impacting the rest of the world by treating the rest of the world as the “away” to which waste might be shipped. The reality is much more complex (as is the case with any sustainability issue). As the economies of other nations develop, those nations become e-waste producers themselves, and over time they will struggle with handling their own waste streams, not just those of others. We need to focus not just on stopping the flow of waste across boundaries, but also on reducing the generation of waste in the first place, creating products that last, that are repairable, and which can be efficiently dismantled for the reclamation of resources in a way that is safe for the environment and laborers.
Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon recently visited Dongxiaokou, a village in China that serves as the hub for e-waste from nearby Beijing. His blog post, “Living on e-waste,” includes photos chronicling the experiences of residents of this village, who have for years collected and recycled electrical and electronic waste from Beijing. He notes; “The amount of e-waste out there is growing and growing. China is now the planet’s second biggest producer of it, only behind the United States, according to information from a 2013 environmental conference…Pollutants from the recycling and disposal process have turned the water a strange colour, and the small stream in the village is tainted with a rancid smell. Mounds of abandoned garbage that cannot be recycled surround Dongxiaokou and children play on piles of waste.”
Despite the conditions and meager earnings, the villagers are simply trying to make a living, and are concerned that Dongxiaokou is set to be demolished as part of an urbanization program. This plan not only means displacement and a potential loss of livelihood for the village residents–it could also spell trouble for Beijing, since the government does not, according to Harrison Jacobs of Business Insider, have an alternate plan in place for dealing with e-waste that currently accumulates in Dongxiaokou. The demolition of the village may lead to improved environmental conditions in the area in time, but it’s likely the problem will simply shift to another location unless more sustainable waste management plans are made. “Away” will become somewhere else, until we find better ways to link informal recycling operations with formal ones, as discussed by Mike Ives for Yale360 and Williams et al. in their article “Linking Informal and Formal Electronics Recycling via an Interface Organization.”
Check out Kim Kyung-Hoon’s photos and commentary on Dongxiaokou here, and see some of his additional shots in Harrison Jacobs’ 6/4/14 article for Business Insider.