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E-waste: a form of environmental colonialism

Have you ever heard of the term e-waste? Before I watched an online lecture about it two weeks ago via De Balie, I didn’t. E-waste stands for electronic waste, which Western societies produce a lot of. For developing countries, this e-waste is becoming a huge problem. The smartphones and laptops we throw away become dangerous electronic waste which gets dumped in countries like Ghana and Nigeria: a form of environmental colonialism.

In the Netherlands, we are in the lead when it comes to e-waste. Be it phones, computers or other electronics, we waste 21 kg per person per year. This waste is dumped and burned, not in our own country, but in developing nations like Ghana. According to Mike Anane, a Ghanaian environmental journalist and one of the speakers during the lecture, this illegal dumping of e-waste has been going on for more than 20 years. Since Ghana is a fast developing country with a lot of trade coming in each day, it is easy to smuggle in trailers full of e-waste.

But is it all just waste coming into Ghana? According to researcher Kees Baldé, there is a lot of valuable materials in e-waste and a lot of material can be used as second-hand goods. There is a market for second-hand electronic products and it is therefore not all ‘waste’ coming into Ghana. When you ask Mike, however, he believes that the term second-hand is often used as a loophole to bring non-functional electronic waste to Ghana. He sees that 70-80 per cent of our ‘waste’ coming into Ghana is complete garbage. The other percent is second hand and will quite soon become waste as well. This creates a problem because the country lacks the infrastructure and knowledge to deal with it in the right way. Because of the toxic materials it contains, recycling e-waste is quite a dangerous job.

During the lecture, this dumping of e-waste was linked to colonialism. The idea that you can get rid of things you do not want anymore, throw them out, let them occupy space and take up time somewhere else where people get very little to no return for this, is very much colonial if you ask Ama van Dantzig. She works for Dr. Monk, an organisation that tries to create new ways of working together by introducing alternative innovations that fit the context better. Although giving a second-hand washing machine to people in Ghana might sound like a nice gesture, it says something about the way we think here. In our eyes, a washing machine will lead to development. But we do not stop to think about who gets to use that washing machine in Ghana, not everyone has electricity there and therefore might simply become a useless product.  

So, next time you are about to treat yourself to a phone and carelessly throw the other one away, think about whether it is really needed to buy a new one already. Be aware that our consumerism creates big problems somewhere else in the world. And if you got interested in the topic of e-waste and environmental colonialism, you can still watch the lecture via this link: https://debalie.nl/programma/what-a-waste-the-challenge-of-environmental-colonialism-21-01-2021/