In 2016, two hundred printers and monitors were fitted with GPS trackers and dropped at recyclers and charities across the US. After just a few months, one in three had been shipped overseas, mostly across the Pacific to Asia. This experiment by MIT and the Basel Action Network reveals the tip of the electronic waste iceberg: experts estimate that as many as nine out of ten discarded computers eventually end up in developing countries.
These electronics exports can help people escape poverty, but they can also hinder them, and the key lies in product design.
Used electronics and poverty
Exports of used electronics support a growing number of jobs in repair and refurbishment. In Accra and Lagos, tens of thousands of people already work in the electronics repair industry. In Ghana, the industry is so large that imports of used electronics exceed imports of new equipment by a factor of two to one, and 80% of this secondhand equipment is in working condition or can be repaired.
These goods help bridge the digital divide, making IT equipment affordable for schools, students and small businesses. For example, in Uganda just 2.5% of people owned a computer in 2014, and one of the unintended side effects of Uganda’s ban on importing used IT equipment was to make access to IT much more expensive.
Used electronics and health
Uganda’s ban was intended to prevent a growing environmental and public health problem. In the EU, old electronic goods are classed as hazardous waste, and their disassembly takes place (or is supposed to) under strict controls. In developing countries, the situation is very different: waste electronics are often recycled by teenagers with no protective equipment, working on dumpsites close to residential areas. In Delhi alone, approximately 25,000 people work at unregulated e-waste scrapyards. The toxic chemicals released reduce the life expectancy of those involved and living nearby. These effects are well documented, in academic papers and the press, and are the subject of growing attention from manufacturers and governments.
Designing a solution
Most of the attention paid to this area is focused on clearing up the mess caused by electronics at the end of its life. For example, a number of manufacturers, international organisations and NGOs are working to improve the health of recyclers and ensure that waste is disposed of safely, whilst protecting the livelihoods of waste workers in poor nations.
Recent research from Tearfund examines the other end of the pipe, exploring how tweaks to design standards could prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. Our conclusion is that better design standards in the EU could reduce health and environmental problems and capitalize on the poverty-reducing effects of used electronics.
Ambitious standards that promote access to technical know-how could improve livelihoods for those in the repair industry. To give two specific examples, greater ambition on durability is likely to increase the proportion of products flooding into developing countries because they have fallen out of fashion, rather than because they are broken. If coupled with efforts to increase upgradeability (perhaps through modularity and greater compatibility, so electronics will continue to work with future versions of software) this could create more value in refurb and repair businesses across the developing world.
From a health perspective, restricting toxic chemicals (such as ‘Substances of Very High Concern’) would make informal recycling operations safer. This could be coupled with changes that make it easier to safely disassemble products, in order to extract elements of higher value.
Conversely, regulations that allow manufacturers to establish a monopoly over repair and upgrade could seriously damage livelihoods in poor nations, partly by retaining value within these original manufacturing businesses, but also by limiting the amount of residual value that can be accessed (through repair and upgrade) once products reach developing countries.
An overlooked lever for poverty reduction
Product design standards for electronics have a clear and growing influence over poverty and public health in developing countries. They could become a key lever for lifting people out of poverty. At present, however, this lever is almost completely overlooked by policy processes in the EU and elsewhere, which do not consider the role used electronics play overseas.
The Basel Action Network’s GPS trackers demonstrate the global nature of the trade in used electronics. If we want this trade to help and not harm those in poverty, we need to amend our design standards.