Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with Dan Haves from "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground"

On February 21st, we were delighted to sit down with Dan Haves, one of the UBC graduate students who made the 2009 documentary Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, later broadcasted on PBS. The Emmy-winning documentary explores e-waste in three different countries: Ghana, India and China. The students travelled to these countries, where they spoke with the workers, obtained shocking footage, and uncovered some disheartening problems. To watch the documentary, click here
In our interview, Dan discussed many issues that both enlightened us about our project, and put the problems of e-waste in a new light. Here are some things we learned:

1.  China, Ghana and India are all involved in the e-waste trade, but do so in different ways.
In China, for example, women are the main workers. They sit individually at burners, “cooking circuit boards” and breathing in the toxins. In Ghana, on the other hand, children are the primary victims. They often burn Styrofoam in massive bonfires. Compared to the other countries, the barriers in Ghana are much less obtrusive, meaning that e-waste is more visible to anyone visiting.

2.   There are many parties who bear responsibility for the problems.
Us, in the developed world are not without blame. The amount of electronics consumed and discarded cause the bulk of the problem. The governments of these developed countries are also responsible for the problem, by allowing the e-waste to be sent overseas illegally. Dan also includes the Port of Vancouver, arguing that they know where the shipments are heading. Finally, the governments of the developing countries should protect their citizens, and ban the import of e-waste.

3.   Simply stopping the export of e-waste to developing countries won’t solve the problem.
Dan explained to us that in some of the cities they visited while making the film, e-waste trade is their only economy and source of income. This is not an excuse or a justification for sending e-waste overseas. It is simply a reminder of how complex and multifaceted the problem is. We must look for better alternatives for the people in these countries to support themselves.  

4.   A major issue involving e-waste is privacy.
Dan and his fellow students learned that although a hard drive can appear to be erased, it still stores information that can be revealed when taking it apart. Top-secret documents, banking information and personal photos can all be easily uncovered. In fact, Ghana is a major site of cyber-crime. The only way to truly wipe the information from a hard drive is to physically destroy it, which ruins its capability to be recycled.

When we asked Dan what we can do here to help the situation, he explained that consumers need to research recycling organizations when donating their electronics. They should be able to tell you exactly where everything goes, and what is done with every piece. His number one piece of advice is to ask questions!

Dan also commented on e-waste policies of universities. He said that the policies should be clear and transparent to everyone. Universities should do extensive research before choosing a recycling organization, and ensure that privacy issues are well taken care of, as university computers hold extensive personal information from students.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guiyu - The Capital of E-waste

'Free Geek' Tour

It was another typical rainy day in Vancouver, but that didn't put a damper on our trip to Free Geek! Free Geek is a non-profit, ethical recycling organisation, located on East Hastings and Pandora St. They not only  recycle electronics, but they also re-furbish computers. In addition to this, they offer free education for those who want to learn more about computers and receive training in refurbishing them. This successful program has created a team of extremely dedicated and passionate volunteers.

We were welcomed by Jessica Mason-Paull who took us through an eye-opening tour of the recycling depot and its operations. It was outstanding to see the stacks of boxes and aisles filled with computer monitors/towers, batteries, printers, phones, and speakers. Free Geek has efficiently allotted space to three main operations; the evaluation site, the re-furbishing room, and a thrift store. The thrift store, Free Geek's main source of income, sells low cost re-furbished electronics back to the community. You can find some great deals there - 10 cents/gigabyte, computer monitors for less than $50, video games for $2 and more! 

E-waste has become an issue that concerns more than just the condition of our planet but also the future of our social structures. Jessica emphasizes that “we [are] killing people and their families, [and] their children's children are going to suffer because of our toxic waste”. Our irresponsibility in disposing of e-waste has caused those in lesser developed countries like Ghana, China, and India to suffer the effects. Their health and lives are put to risk due to our ignorance.

Evaluation Table
Jessica mentions three main culprits of e-waste:
1. We, the Consumers - Our mentality is to have the coolest and latest gadgets. Instead, we need to forget about this idea of 'perceived obsolescence'. Do we really need that new iPod/Blackberry, when our slightly older version is in perfect working condition? 

2. Electronic Companies - These companies have the resources and money to develop products which do not contain such toxic
chemicals but the time, effort, and research required deters them from          
Barrels overflowing with wires
 taking responsible action.

3. The Government - Without the implementation of stronger measures by the government, changes regarding e-waste will not happen. Until then, it is up to organisations like Free Geek, and other e-waste advocates to educate the public.

Our trip to Free Geek has further motivated us to raise awareness to people, especially our student body, in hopes that they too will be encouraged to take a stance on this underreported issue. Our society has grasped the concept of recycling, but we need to further this and enforce the importance of re-using, re-furbishing, and reducing.

Some of the MOST toxic - Lithium Batteries

E-waste has been disregarded by citizens and the government for far too long, so as a starting point, we are hosting an “E-Waste Day” at SFU Burnaby on March 14th. Bring in your old cell phones, computers (if you can carry them!), iPods and small appliances. At the end of the day, we’ll bring them to Free Geek, where they will be re-furbished and will not be sent overseas.

For further information on volunteering or attending a workshop, visit

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SFU E-waste Campaign in the Media: Green Blog

We're pleased to announce the first media coverage of our campaign! The environmental blog Green Blog has posted an article about e-waste which highlights our group.

Check it out here: Green Blog Article

Green Blog is an international environmental blog based in Sweden. It publishes environmental stories from around the world.

Keep posted for more media coverage of our campaign!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

About E-Waste

What is E-Waste?

E-waste stands for electronic waste. This includes anything from discarded and broken cell phones, to computers, iPods, and small appliances.

Why do we have so much E-Waste?

North America is dealing with a crisis of overconsumption, which produces a variety of harmful consequences. In this digital age, our society has become heavily immersed in technology. Due to this we have a surplus of electronics, obsolete or loose scraps, that are irresponsibly discarded by citizens and electronic recycling companies that claim they are 'green'. Unfortunately, the production, consumption and ultimate disposal of e-waste is sped up with planned obsolescence, when products are intentionally designed to have a short lifespan-- they either break quickly and cannot be repaired inexpensively, or new versions are continually being designed to replace older ones.

What are the problems with E-waste?

When e-waste is disposed of, it is often sent overseas where people in poorer, developing nations take apart the products in an effort to recycle them. Some recycling companies that appear to be reputable engage in this practice as well. North America and Europe are known to export a large percentage of their e-waste to countries like India, China, and Ghana.

It is these populations that suffer the dreadful side effects of e-waste. These electronics contain powerful and toxic chemicals, lead, beryllium, and mercury to name a few, which are affecting the health of many. In the process of taking the electronics apart, these workers are exposed to dangerous toxins, putting themselves, their families and their environment at risk. Their health and lifestyle are put in danger, and with this digital age flourishing, with no ending in near time, the amount of e-waste still to come is unfathomable.

About Our Campaign

What can we do to prevent e-waste and its damaging effects? This is what our project attempts to answer.

We are a group of students from SFU's CMNS 425 class (Applied Communications for Social Issues). Our goal this semester is to seek changes in the way e-waste is being disposed, in addition to raising awareness among our peers. We want people to become aware of the dangers of e-waste, and we want a promise from our university that it will ban e-waste.

Some of the steps we’re taking to achieve our goals for the campaign are:

·         to make an educational documentary to raise awareness of e-waste
·         to get as much media coverage as we can
·         to connect students through social networking sites, encouraging them to become involved
·         to teach people where they can safely recycle their electronics, as well as questioning people about the amount of electronic waste they produce
·         to create an “E-waste Day” at SFU, as well as a solid plan for SFU to ban e-waste

Together, we are aiming to raise awareness through establishing an e-waste campaign at SFU. From there, we hope to make the voices of those who live in these e-waste infested countries heard.

Keep posted—we’ll be updating our blog every time we have news to share about our project!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

E-waste Statistics

Did you know?
  • The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005.
  • Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries.
  • 183 million computers were sold worldwide in 2004 - 11.6 percent more than in 2003.
  • 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 percent more than in 2003.
  • By 2010, there will be 716 million new computers in use. There will be 178 million new computer users in China, 80 million new users in India.