E-waste dystopia isn’t science fiction – it’s reality

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Chinese SF author warns tech conference that e-waste is an urgent issue that’s going to get worse if everyone keeps treating it as someone else’s problem.

It’s not often that you see a science-fiction writer addressing an international technology conference, at least not here in Asia. But anyone attending Day 1 of the RISE conference in Hong Kong this week saw just that in the form of Chen Qiufan, who spoke on the topic of electronic waste and urged delegates to be more proactive in dealing with the growing e-waste problem.

Chen – who is also the founder and chief creative officer of Thema Mundi Studio – grew up in Shantou, a little over an hour’s drive from Guiyu, widely regarded as the largest e-waste site on the planet. Chen’s debut novel Waste Tide – published in China in 2013, with an English translation published in April this year – is set in the near future in a fictional Chinese town called Silicon Isle, a massive e-waste dump where Chinese gangs and international corporations exploit the locals who eke out a living extracting anything valuable from the discarded electronics – mainly precious metals like gold, silver or copper.

Silicon Isle is modelled on Guiyu. In fact, as Chen pointed out in his talk, it’s the one SF part of the book that needed the least embellishment.

When Chen visited Guiyu in 2011, he said, “[I saw] broken, plastic components and wires and circuit boards scattered everywhere, but it was the playground for the children,” he said. “Everything was surrounded by a miasma – generated by acid baths, and also from burning of PVC circuit boards – in the fields and also on the shore of the river.”

Chen showed photos of how workers melt down components using acid and even lighters to extract metals for recycling. “These hazardous components contaminate the air, the water, the soil, and also cause huge damage to each worker’s health.”

Those scenes inspired Chen to write the novel, but his objective wasn’t to just focus on Guiyu but call attention to the global ecosystem that created it. “[Guiyu] is just a small piece of the global e-waste landscape, he said.”

‘Not in my backyard’

The issue of e-waste dumping has been a contentious one for years as developed countries who generate the most e-waste unload it on developing countries who generate the least. According to Greenpeace and Basel Action Network, North America sends most of its e-waste primarily to Asia, while EU countries send theirs to Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and African countries like Senegal, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Benin.

Many countries have laws governing e-waste, but enforcement is generally lax, and tracking/monitoring of e-waste is tricky because some companies resort to smuggling to dump it, Chen said. And when countries do crack down on e-waste imports – as China has done in recent years – the e-waste is simply sent elsewhere. For example, Chen said, much of the e-waste that would normally go to China is now being passed off to Southeast Asia countries.

“In the last six months, plastic imports have risen 76% in Indonesia, by two-fold in Vietnam. and 1,370% in Thailand,” he said. “So it’s not only about waste – it’s also economic and geopolitical imbalance.”

There has been some pushback from developing countries who don’t want to serve as recycling dumps – especially when waste intended to be recycled is contaminated with rotting garbage, as was the case with a six-year dispute between Canada and the Philippines that was only resolved in May.

The problem is that the more countries declare “not in my backyard”, the less “yards” there are to dump this stuff. And the problem is getting worse as electronic devices proliferate.

According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017,  the world generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste in 2016 (up 8% from 2014). That’s projected to reach 52.2 million metric tons in 2021. What’s worse, of that 44.7 million metric tons, only 20% was recycled. Of the remaining 80%, only 4% had been accounted for in terms of what eventually happened to it.

‘Throwaway society’

So if we can’t (or won’t) recycle it all, and no one wants to become the next Guiyu, what should we do?

Chen recommends three long-term strategies: (1) coming up with better and accurate ways to track and evaluate e-waste shipments and policy enforcement, (2) get all stakeholders actively involved in tackling the issue – governments, universities, research Institutes, companies, industry associations, NGOs and international agencies, and (3) convince OEMs to rethink the entire lifecycle of their products and adopt a strategy of extended producer responsibility.

“We have to ask all these manufacturers to take on the responsibility of the whole stage of their products, including end-of-life management,” he said.

Chen said that while IT is undoubtedly delivering great benefits to society, “the growing of the throwaway society is leading us to the mindset that we throw away old stuff and buy new stuff rather than keep and repair, and it consequently leads to more e-waste and damage to our planet Earth.”

Chen urged the audience to ask themselves two questions whenever they buy or throw away any electronic device: Where did it come from? And where will it go?

“There is no ‘someone else’s backyard’, and there’s no such thing as ‘away’,” he said. “This is the only home and planet we have.”

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