Sunday, October 30, 2005

Is the Tech Waste Killing the Developing World?

NIGERIA: World's broken electronics pile up in Lago

LAGOS (IRIN) - Nigeria is becoming a digital dump, the recipient of vast numbers of broken gadgets from the West that can leak dangerous substances into water supplies and create cancer-causing particles when burnt, a toxic waste watchdog said on Thursday.

Basel Action Network, a US-based lobby group that recently conducted an investigation in Africa's most populous country, found that around 500 giant containers, packed with old computers, televisions and mobile phones, were arriving every month at the main city and port, Lagos.

These electronics are supposed to be for repair and re-use, but BAN estimates that 75 percent of the items are neither repairable nor of any economic value...


Waste not, want not, as the old saying goes.

But what does one do when one's gift of waste is no longer wanted?

For years, many well-meaning people have been "donating" their old information and communication techologies (ICT) to various organizations in the hope that their busted machines will somehow miraculously be salvaged in some remote part of the world.

People will donate their old PCs to be reused in places like Africa. Obsolete mobile phones are turned over to charities in the hope that they will do some good.

Waste not, want not, as the old saying goes.

The problems with this model of combatting the Digital Divide in the Developing World are numerous. While the idea of bridging the divide using the West's garbage may seem like a worthwile pursuit and a noble cause, it is often based more on the need for people or organizations to help than on the actual information needs of the intended recipients.

There are many who naively believe that that Palm that fell in the punchbowl at the office Christmas party will somehow repair itself, that that IBM 386 with the fried motherboard can bring the World Wide Web to some school in Honduras.

There are also the well-intentioned religious and nonprofit organizations that collect these machines, hoping beyond all reasonable hope that their organization can actually turn the broken playthings of the West into loaves and fishes for the Information Age.

And there are, of course, the entrepeneurs, who see the industrialized world's ICT waste as a potential goldmine, buying surplus salvage on the cheap with the intent of making repairs and remarketing the recycled product overseas.

Then there are those, sadly, who could care less about helping. Their motivation for shipping ICT refuge to Sub-Saharan Africa is motivated more by the need to maintain a profit-margin. Why pay more for the disposal of the extremely hazardous components in cell phones, PDAs, and PCs when a corporation can circumvent local environmental regulations and costs by shipping it to places where there are none?

The new "Digital Dumps" springing up around the globe in places like Nigeria, India, and other countries demonstrate that sometimes even the most well-intentioned gift can do more harm than good.

While waste not, want is indeed a great model for helping build a more efficient community, when it comes to technology, one man's garbage is not necessarily another man's treasure.

As a matter of fact, that leftover technology may be damaging that other man's drinking water or contributing to the destruction of the ecosystem in his part of the world.

It is still possible to teach a man to fish, but it is impossible to do so while the teacher continues to poison the water.


Leigh said...

And it is so. I am responsible for "disposing" my companie's obsolete ICT's and we make sure that who we have contracted is safely recycling the hardware, or trashing it a safe and healthy manner. Living in Silicon Valley, there are many people who are aware of the problem of "donating" old equipment to more remote areas of the world (I have had a lot of people ask me where they can get rid of their stuff safely).

The ZenFo Pro said...

That's so badass. That was the one thing I loved about Cali when I lived out there. People bitch about it, but the level of social consciousness is amazing...

Some of ICT components are full of lead, mercury, lithium, etc. Its a tragedy that a lot of that stuff is being essentially "outsourced."

What to go, Leigh!!!

Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

Seriously it just figures.

pia said...

The last line is great, and very very true

Hope you got my email apologizing

Sometimes when I'm attacked for my lack of morals etc; I tend to attack anybody who happens to be there.

It's an Internet thing; not used to being told I'm horrible for admitting to being a person ;-)

Anonymous said...

What an inciteful post...very thought provoking