Stunning Photos Capture Devastating Worldwide E-Waste Problem
A lot has been written about electronic waste. In 2012, 50 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, and with the proliferation of smartphones, smart watches and other tech gear, that number will only increase. United Nations officials estimate that the volume of e-waste generated worldwide is expected to climb by 33 percent by 2017 to 65 million tons.
Those cold, hard numbers say a lot, but sometimes the pictures say much more.
The Guardian described the fumes as "head-pounding." Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project
If unused electronic goods aren't gathering dust in the garage, they are either recycled (about 30 percent of the time) or simply thrown away—out of sight, out of mind. But as you scroll through this post on your smartphone or computer, it's important to remember that modern luxuries have a price.
While e-waste in the U.S. only makes up 2 percent of the country's municipal solid waste stream, it's a much more prevalent and devastating problem to less affluent countries, as demonstrated by these haunting images from Italian photographer Valentino Bellini's ongoing Bit Rot Project.
"About 80 percent of the e-waste produced in developed countries (North America and Europe on the top of the list) is not disposed of in situ, but shipped, most of the time illegally, to developing countries on cargo ships, where it is illegally disposed of," Bit Rot said.
As the latest products come along and desktop computers, MP3 players and landlines become obsolete, this gadget-driven fervor has generated mountains of toxic trash that poison people and the planet. (And it's not just old Blackberrys and MacBooks, it's everything from old refrigerators, televisions, toys and more.)
"Especially in countries like India, China and some African regions where the technology industry is growing fast," Bit Rot said. "It is hazardous waste, containing dozens of substances dangerous to human health and the environment; it is hard to be sustainably disposed of and it needs a costly processing technique to make it recyclable."
While illegal electronic waste dumping also occurs in the U.S., the appeal of sending e-waste overseas comes down to lower labor costs and fewer regulations. According to a 2013 United Nations report, China is "grappling with the reality of an estimated 20 percent annual rise in domestically generated e-waste combined with a role as one of the planet’s primary dumping grounds for global e-waste—a massive environmental, social and economic burden."
The southeastern town of Guiyu, China is a major e-wastebasket. CNN reported that Guiyu workers burn or process tech gear with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper and steel. In the process, it releases toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium into the environment. Hydrocarbon ashes have also polluted the air, water and soil.
Where does all this salvaged tech junk go? Well, back into many homes. "We sell this plastic to Foxconn," a e-waste worker in Guiyu told CNN. As it turns out, Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
"The commercialization process and the capitalistic valorization created a true 'waste economy,'" Bit Rot observed. "This extends the logic behind profit and exploitation even to those scraps that it had produced, creating a never ending cycle that profits from its own death."
We can change our nasty modern habits, but it's very likely a long uphill battle. "Strengthening and enforcing insufficient international laws would thwart massive profits," Bit Rot wrote soberly. "Disposing of a PC by sending it to a dumpster in Africa costs $2, while it would cost $20 to sustainably recycle it."
So what can be done? The UN's Step initiative is tackling the world's behemoth e-waste crisis. The Obama administration also has “serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics or e-waste, both domestically and overseas, that results in harm to human health and the environment,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia told U.S. News.
It also looks like Americans are becoming more conscious of their own e-waste footprint. Case in point, according to recent data from Recon Analytics, in 2014, the average American replaced their mobile phone every 26.5 months, a vast improvement from every 18 months in 2007.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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