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ICT products make our life prosper. But a problem is emerging.

Written by Yusuke Amino

Ecological Economics

Essential things for modern life, such as smartphones, laptops and televisions may influence on our health. How many years have you used your smartphones? The answer depends on you, but I’m sure many people did “model change” several times this decade. As rapid technological developments, many people live with smartphones and computers. However, at the same times, an amount of e-waste (waste of EEE which is “electric and electronics equipment” [1, p7] such as the products I mentioned above) had also increased from 33.8 megatons in 2010 to 45.7 megatons in 2016. [1]. E-waste contains heavy metals which are toxic to our bodies, therefore it causes environmental degradations and health damages if we do not cope with it property [2]

Indeed, a lot of research points out serious health impacts due to e-waste, especially in developing countries [3,4,5]. There are two famous e-waste dumping sites in the world. One is Guiyu in China, and 80 percent of children living near there suffer from respiratory ailments and have a high dangerous level of lead in their blood [6]. In Agbogbloshie in Ghana, another famous site, dust has more than thousands of heavy metal concentration levels compared with a standard level [7]. Though e-wastes are often produced by developed countries, they move to developing countries as secondhand products [4]. As a result, developing countries struggle to deal with massive wastes and end up with scattering them in dumping sites. Researchers expect the e-waste problem will become more serious [3,4,5] and WHO warns more severe health impacts by high-tech products [8].

Achieving a good global management to ban transferring e-waste is of course crucial, however, it is more important to focus on an actual root cause. A reason to generate many e-wastes is an unsustainable scale market of EEE because the current economy generates and consumes too much EEE to cope with and to degrade by ecosystem. A global average recycling rate of e-waste is only 20% [2]. Hence the rest of them contribute to health issues and environmental contaminations. In order to reduce e-waste, productions of EEE must be operated within a sustainable scale which means the rate of resources usage does not exceed a capacity that ecosystem can absorb [9]. In a context of e-waste, companies must not produce EEE beyond an assimilative capacity by ecosystem and recycling. However, unfortunately there are some effects to promote unsustainable economic activities neglecting physical limits.

The myth of ICT (information communication technology) development, which is that an expansion of ICTs contributes economic growth and solve some social problems such as inequality, is a driver of an unsustainable scale production of EEE [10]. In fact, many papers illustrate a correlation relationship between ICT development and economic growth [11,12]. ICTs also contribute to mitigate inequality by delivering information and knowledge to isolated people in terms of geography and economics [13]. Focusing on only positive impacts of ICT development, an amount of e-waste has been increasing dramatically. In context of economic, ICT sector is an engine of GDP growth [14] not distinguishing between real economic benefits and health and environmental costs.

In addition, features of EEE also create an unsustainable scale consumption. One of the most popular reasons to discard EEE is updating technology [14]. Consumers are prone to seek better and more convenience products. Using this tendency, companies stimulate demands by launching new models as you can see a recent market of iPhone [15].  Furthermore, “planned obsolesce” [16, p.729] accelerates more frequent purchases of EEE [17,18]. Companies produce devices set their rough life expectancies, and this leads to buy other devices in a short term. In fact, an average lifespan of CPU, which is a brain of a computer, shrink more than 2 years from 1997 to 2005 [3]. Indeed, recently Apple and Samsung paid fines due to excessive planned obsolescence [19]. These two factors integrated with economic and technological reasons foster unsustainable scale demands.

In order to mitigate the e-waste problem, producers must strive to create an EEE market within a sustainable scale. To nudge sustainable movements of companies, “extended producer responsibility (EPR)” [1, p.49] is a useful approach. EPR means that a company takes responsibility of the whole life cycles of their products from producing to recycling [20]. Costs of recycling and fixing become a massive burden for companies, hence it contributes to avoid creating fragile short-life devices. Japan is the first countries introducing EPR to basic e-waste management system and she indicates a high recycling rate of e-waste [1]. Some countries also have implemented EPR for e-waste management systems, however, these effects are often limited because some EPR policies impose companies only to set collection sites [20]. Given the current situation of e-waste, it's a time to tackle this issue more seriously. The world needs stricter responsibilities of companies.


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