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The hidden costs of going green: Part 2


The hidden costs of going green: Part 2

There is a need to minimize the negative impact we have on our planet. However, our adoption of recent green technologies in the pursuit of minimizing environmental damage has already led to unforeseen and all-too-unmentioned ecological destruction. Is this just the price we have to pay? You can read Part 1 here.

Note: This article originally appeared in the print edition of Return.

E-waste: Guiya, China & Agbogbloshie, Ghana

Along with reducing energy consumption and the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy is the third great eco-commandment: Thou shalt recycle. Drilled into us as children and now for many an unconscious habit, the act of recycling is considered part of the virtuous package of green beliefs and an essential component in the “circular economy.” But recent scandals have exposed the great fraud of recycling and its empty promises.

We should remember that these green technologies were always viewed and sold under a premise — that these technologies are not only technically efficient and productive, but they are morally good.

In 2018, under a policy called “National Sword,” China banned 24 types of plastic entering the country. At a stroke, the entire foundation of the world’s recycling system was demolished. Panic set in as countries began frantically searching for somewhere else to dump their trash. The harder questions then began to be asked about how and why industrial nations are producing so much plastic. It was also discovered that the alternatives to China were horrifying, ranging from burning plastic in residential areas to just dumping it in the ocean. Back in 2017, alarm bells should have been ringing when a research paper estimated that since 2015, humans have produced roughly 6,300 million metric tons of plastic and that only 9% of it has been recycled. The remainder was either burned (12%) or packed into a landfill (79%).

Plastics and the subsequent exposure to microplastics as a serious threat to human and animal health have dominated the environmental headlines for the last few years. But the question of electronic waste, “e-waste,” has been relatively under-discussed. Electronic and digital infrastructure is often touted as the greener and more eco-friendly of any given option — banks often ask you to review your statement online rather than print one on paper. But this ignores the immense damage that electronics cause during their production and particularly during their disposal. The full list of chemicals and substances found within e-waste is vast, but some of the more potent include brominated flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polybrominated biphenyls, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, lithium, arsenic, and bismuth.

The sheer volume of this waste has ballooned out of control; China alone was estimated to have produced 15 million metric tons in 2020. In general, we can categorize e-waste into three main types: large household appliances (fridges, freezers, etc), personal equipment (smartphones, tracker gadgets, TVs), and IT equipment (monitors, servers, fiber-optic cables, etc). All of these are set to increase as the costs of production have lowered for the average consumer and as more countries develop their digital infrastructure.

The movement and shipping of e-waste is, in principle, subject to control through the Basel Convention (in force since 1992). However, without the ratification of the United States and with precious few enforcement mechanisms, the Convention has failed to prevent millions of tons of e-waste from being transported and dumped across the world. One place, in particular, has garnered international attention — Agbogbloshie, Ghana — and is listed among the top 10 most toxic places on earth.

Despite some substantial hyperbole about illegal e-waste trafficking, the waste dump near the center of Accra does pose a huge health risk, both to the adults and children working there and the greater environment of the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. In particular, the open fires used to melt the plastic from copper wiring and the subsequent extraction by hand of precious metals and electronic components without safety equipment causes horrific neurological and physical harm to the workers. Similarly, in Guangdong, China, the former rice village of Guiya was quickly established as the electronic graveyard of the world. In the early 2000s, over 60,000 people were employed under the most primitive conditions to harvest and extract valuable metals from e-waste, sent from all over the world.

Burning plastic, soaking chips in acid baths, and breathing in dioxin-tainted ash, the workers were recovering gold, toner, copper, and silver. The water became undrinkable and had to be brought from elsewhere, rice could not be grown, children were exposed to critical levels of lead, and toxic dust saturated with chromium, nickel, and zinc settled over the town. Since 2007 the area has been subject to state-led efforts to raise safety and health standards, but the pollution and contamination are likely permanent and have yet to be dealt with.

One major incentive to bring e-waste recycling back under national controls is the growing problem of data security within e-waste. All those mobile phones, hard drives, servers, and consumer gadgets are packed with passwords, personal data, and in some cases even state secrets. Journalists reporting on Agbogbloshie went rummaging through the informal markets that surround the dump, and they found a hard drive containing unencrypted sensitive U.S. government data.

A team of journalists investigating the global electronic waste business have unearthed a security problem too. In a Ghana market, they bought a computer hard drive containing sensitive documents belonging to U.S. government contractor Northrop Grumman. ... They were marked ‘competitive sensitive’ and covered company contracts with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Transportation Security Agency.

Organized crime in Ghana has realized the gold mine of information that Agbogbloshie represents and regularly purchases hard drives, looking for useful data:

The students take the hard drives to Regent University in the Ghanaian capital and ask computer scientist Enoch Kwesi Messiah to help read what is on them. Within minutes, he is scrolling through intimate details of people’s lives, files left behind by the hard drives’ original owners. There is private financial data, too: credit card numbers, account information, records of online transactions the original owners may not have realized were even there.

“I can get your bank numbers, and I retrieve all your money from your accounts,” Messiah says. “If ever somebody gets your hard drive, he can get every information about you from the drive, no matter where it is hidden.”

That’s particularly a problem in a place like Ghana, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the top sources of cybercrime in the world.

The return of the state


I selected the three problems addressed in these articles — polymetallic nodule mining, sand extraction, and e-waste — as good examples of the relationship between the environment, technology, health, and the state. The ‘90s paradigm of globalization outstripping the nation-state and rendering it obsolete has thankfully run its course, although some tone-deaf commentators and ideologues are still wedded to the “market first” vision of humanity.

What has come screeching back into the void of COVID-19, the retreat of U.S. hegemony, and the rise of China is the fundamental importance of national governance. Some, like the U.K., are beginning to realize how withered their powers have become; others, like China, are confidently asserting their muscle. The control of national territory, especially in the ocean; the enforcement of national treaties; the ability to shut borders to the flow of material goods; the development of safety protocols and infrastructure for recycling critical technologies (e.g., batteries); the protection of ecological assets, and the ability to tackle organized and transnational crime are all fundamental tasks of the nation-state.

While the left-wing environmentalists are correct that pollution or biodiversity depletion doesn’t magically stop at the border, what we must recognize is that handing over national autonomy to international organizations not only hasn’t helped but neutralizes the very tools needed to rein in the excesses of modernity. This is not to argue that national cooperation, treaties, international agreements, and so forth can’t be realized — they absolutely can, and they are best done through a strong national and territorial framework.

We should remember and be wise to the fact that these green technologies were always viewed and sold under a normative premise — that is, these technologies are not only technically efficient and productive, but they are morally good. This makes challenging them that much harder since they are embedded in a framework of eco-solutions to the rampant environmental crimes of former times. Breaking the spell of the “Green Revolution,” showing how tarnished and rotten the core is under the shiny surface, this should be our goal. We cannot afford for the hidden costs to remain invisible for much longer.

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Stone Age  Herbalist

Stone Age Herbalist

Stone Age Herbalist is an archaeologist, dissident academic, and prehistorian.
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