EWaste Recycling Bans: Wasting Opportunity

by Angela Logomasini on May 20, 2009 · 1 comment

in Environment

Computer giant Dell Inc. has announced that it will stop sending computers for recycling to developing nations. Green groups have been fighting to stop such trade because they say lax labor standards overseas pose unreasonable public health risks for the workers.

This is ironic since the greens are always pushing for recycling at any cost in the United States! And Dell has worked hard to be a good citizen, leading the charge for computer recycling by taking old computers from consumers and finding ways to recycle them. CEI documented the value of such efforts in our paper on ewaste a while back (see summary here). While Dell may be trying to meet an even higher standard with this voluntary ban on trading with developing nations, it’s more likely counter-productive.

What people need in the developing world are jobs with paychecks—and the economic progress that brings. They won’t move forward without trade and industry.

People tend to move toward the best available opportunities. When we stop trading, opportunities, like recycling computer components inside a factory, are simply removed from the list of options. And removing it does not mean they move up the ladder to the next-best opportunity. Instead, the people who would have worked in that factory move downward.

In any case, it’s not clear that all these materials are recycled overseas in terrible and dangerous conditions. But as New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof explains very well, even jobs under what we call “sweatshop conditions” are a luxury compared to the “jobs” people must take when those opportunities don’t exist. Where jobs are lacking, many people survive by digging for items in open dumps.   Kristof notes: “Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty.” In many places, the other option for a young woman is a life of prostitution.

The other question is whether shipping these wastes to other nations is creating an environmental waste disposal nightmare. Environmentalists say that nations leave this waste to pile up, pollute rivers and eventually poison people. No doubt, there are tragic cases around the world associated with terrible waste management, but it’s not just computers. We too had open dumps at less prosperous times in history.  As we grew richer, we cleaned them up and found better, safer ways to manage our trash. Developing nations have problems managing all sorts of waste, including their own. If computers are in the dumps, poor people will inevitability will dig out the valuable parts to sell so they can feed their families.  Surely, there are risks–as there are with harvesting other wastes in open dumps.  Still greens exaggerate the risks associated with electronics and focus only on the worst cases .  There are some success stories as detailed on ComputerAid.org.  Check out the CNN video there too.  Surely there are other examples of companies looking for and developing solutions.  But greens ignore all benefits as well as the situations where recycling jobs help people step up from a more dismal life.

Clearly we should investigate the extent of waste management problems and support policies to help address them. But the best policies will be the ones that worked for us: growth enhancing policies. Although it may seem counter-intuitive in this case, trade the best solution because it’s a critical vehicle for wealth creation.

To sum it up, developing nations don’t have the same environmental standards as we do for the same reasons they don’t have the same labor standards—they are too poor. Keeping them poor will only keep them poor! That’s hardly a policy for progress!

Photo: Produced by Venetia Joubert Sarah Oosterveld.

Robin Ingenthron May 21, 2009 at 2:42 am

This is one of the few articles which really tries to understand the recycling market overseas. I would add that the real "escalator from poverty" jobs are the technical/repair jobs where someone with the knowledge to fix a cell phone, laptop, or ink cartridge, can add treemendous value. That is also the explanation for the worst "toxics along for the ride" (the higher the added value, the more acceptable the percentage of byproduct). But sadly, Dell's new policy is precisely aimed at the repair and refurbishment trade.

The best analogy is the outcry in the 1980s over coffee farmer wages, which briefly led to calls for a "coffee boycott". Fair Trade Coffee address the inequities much better, by trading more, not less.

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