What if we made manufacturers responsible for disposing of the products they produce? You would think that products would start to last longer and become cheaper and cheaper to recycle. This concept was first introduced by Thomas Lindhqvist in a report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment in 1990. The idea was named Extended Producer Responsibility, (EPR) and was defined as follows: “[EPR] is an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.”
Photograph: Alte Fabrik Finkemeier 002
Corporate Social Responsibility, (CSR) has become a buzz phrase with companies wanting to communicate their environmental achievements. Consulting agencies rate companies on their corporate responsibility and advise them on environmental ethics. Annual Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability reports allow them to tout their accomplishments. Yet the media is inundated with images of e-waste in Africa, India and anywhere else there is a ready market of cheap labor and an absence of environmental protection measures.
Photograph: Jim Puckett/AP
So how can industry be puffing its chest over CSR while its used and discarded products continue to clog land and waterways in the third world? Here is what Greenpeace said in a report from 2006.
“The hi-tech sector continues to produce ever shorter-life, often superfluous products with inherently hazardous materials. Why are hi-tech corporations, which profess to be responsible corporate citizens allowing this to happen? One answer is that CSR initiatives, whether they involve Codes of Conduct or reporting guidelines, are voluntary. At best, CSR can be a way for the best companies to lead the way. At worst, CSR initiatives can even be a diversionary tactic, used by industry to pretend that they are taking action and to avoid regulation.”
As always some business will adhere to the code of conduct and some will use it to further obscure their nefarious practices. It isn’t any different from large oil companies using their public relations budgets to air television ads about their environmental programs. We’ve all seen the ad campaigns that portray as environmental hero the petroleum company responsible for the most disastrous and extensive oil spill in the history of the planet. The company was found to be “grossly negligent” and yet the eco-friendly ads continue to grace our air waves. It is up to us as individuals to separate truth from fantasy and to demand greater corporate responsibility.
When we drop our old computers off to be recycled we assume this will be done in an appropriate and environmentally safe manner, but e-waste is expensive to recycle and a shadow trade has developed around it. Computers, monitors, and cell phones are dumped by the millions of tons and shipped around the globe by numerous middlemen. The Guardian published a photo essay on e-waste dumping in Ghana.
“Photographer Kevin McElvaney documents Agbogbloshie, a former wetland in Accra, Ghana, which is home to the world’s largest e-waste dumping site. Boys and young men smash devices to get to the metals, especially copper. Injuries, such as burns, untreated wounds, eye damage, lung and back problems, go hand in hand with chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. Most workers die from cancer in their 20s”
Today I went in search of a new mouse. I lost the little wireless usb thingy that connected it to my laptop. My first thought was to just replace it. This alarmed me a bit, my complete apathy towards waste. So I called the manufacturer to order a new usb thing, but they didn’t make that mouse anymore. I was annoyed that I couldn’t replace the part, but honestly I didn’t have time to wait for a new one anyway. So now I have the old mouse staring me in the face. Just as I was beginning to resent having to cart this thing 5 miles to dispose of it responsibly it occurred to me to ask why the responsibility for disposal falls to me in the first place? I don’t mean where do I give it away or how do I find an organization that will dispose of it for me. I mean like unmaking it, removing it from the planet as if it had never been.
I’m not a manufacturer. I didn’t have the vaguest idea what went into the production of this thing in the first place. I mean shouldn’t companies that manufacture huge quantities of plastic/metal/glass/wire gizmos know how to safely dispose of them? And, having created them in the first place, shouldn’t they take responsibility for disposing of them at the end of their useful life? If this responsibility fell to them I’m guessing that the lifespans of their products would begin to double, triple, quadruple. I’m not trying to shirk all responsibility for the waste I produce, but maybe we should be rethinking things that are only useful for a few years, but will remain on the planet forever.
To see where your old computer is likely to end up watch this amazing video from Frontline: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html
On the outskirts of Ghana’s biggest city sits a smoldering wasteland, a slum carved into the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. The locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.