What E-Waste Journalism Gets Wrong

“Pollution, waste, and other ‘externalities’ arising from the mining for, and the manufacture of, electronics are gobsmacking in terms of their tonnage, toxicity, and harms. But the almost obsessive focus in e-waste journalism on the destinations of electronics discarded by Americans and Europeans blinds news consumers to those far more massive consequences of mining and manufacturing.
Panoramic view of Chuquicamata, one of the largest copper mines in the world. (Diego Delsa/Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA)

Globally, the electronics sector is one of the largest consumers of copper. One of the biggest copper mines in the world is Chuquicamata, in Chile. By weight, it generates as much waste in 48 days of operation as American and Chinese consumers combined discard electronics in a year. Today, in Silicon Valley the operations currently running to ‘clean up’ groundwater pollution from electronics manufactured there in the 1970s and 1980s will finish the job sometime around the year 2720 (yes, some 700 years from now).

Pollution and waste from mining for and manufacturing of electronics dwarf those that arise from electronics discarded by consumers. That doesn’t mean those post-consumer discards should be ignored, but e-waste journalism that starts and ends in blighted foreign landscapes of dumps and scrap yards emphasizes the recycling trap. That kind of storytelling actually does harm, even as it seeks to do good. To focus on post-consumer issues reinforces a highly profitable industry strategy to keep costs for pollution and waste arising from their products off their own books. Meanwhile, companies can defer making changes in product design and chemistry.

Pollution and waste from mining for and manufacturing of electronics dwarf those that arise from electronics discarded by consumers.

Most e-waste stories, intentionally or otherwise, reinforce the idea that individual consumer responsibility is where the action ought to be. However, when it comes to electronics, consumers can buy things like cellphones and choose from a myriad array of makes, models, and features. But the conditions under which those electronics are made, the amalgams of toxicants they contain, and the scale of waste and pollutants arising during raw material extraction and manufacturing are so similar and so vast as to make the idea of ‘consumer choice’ basically meaningless as a waste prevention strategy. Yet, e-waste journalism only rarely gets beyond individualist, end-of-pipe framings of the issue. Most perniciously, that kind of journalism makes it harder to shift the conversation to where it matters most: upstream, to the effects of raw material extraction and manufacturing, where the real power lies.”

Josh Lepawsky is Professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the author of “Reassembling Rubbish.”   

For the original article, please visit https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/what-e-waste-journalism-gets-wrong/

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