With bins for everything from compost to batteries and small electronic devices, there is no excuse not to sort our trash. But even with more recycling options than drinking glasses at home, the next computer I replace is more likely to end up in a Ghana than in my own backyard.
The burning of household waste as an energy source is a standard practice in Sweden. Not only is the trash disposed of, it is turned into something useful. Though this may seem efficient, the cost-benefit of this practice is still debated. The burning of household waste could be thought to justify the creation of waste in the first place, and though 99% of household waste in Sweden is recycled there is still waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) that is not always recycled and is dangerous to burn.
The inefficiency of waste disposal is a worldwide problem. Toxins from landfills enter into the ground and neglected waste finds its way to the island of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Disposing of and replacing outdated or broken e-waste products such as television sets, refrigerators, laptops and cell phones is only further encouraged by companies releasing new products. Apple for instance releases a new iPhone every year, this year introducing two new models to celebrate the smartphone’s 10th year anniversary. Companies like Sony who sell television sets and other popular electronic equipment also have yearly update, and though not all such updates are revolutionary, the practice of releasing new technology on an annual basis has revolutionized the way we consume.
Because of the environmental and health concerns involved in the disposal of WEEE, the European Union (EU) has implemented laws to regulate the process. In the EU report Out of Control: E-waste trade flows from the EU to developing countries, Sara Nordbrand notes that though the EU allows for its countries to export used and working electronics, it illegal to export non-functional or broken ones. Nordbrand also points out that in addition to phasing out hazardous substances used in the production of many electronics, disposing of products that contain hazardous chemicals is costly. These regulations are meant to hold individual countries within the EU accountable for electronics they export and urge them to take responsibility for their WEEE.
Unfortunately, this does not always work as planned. Though Sweden is leading the EU in recycling household waste, when it comes to e-waste disposal there are improvements to be made. Much of our e-waste ends up in countries such as Ghana and China because of a lack of resources and time at customs. Poor inspection practices lead to non-working electronics and electronics with limited remaining lifespans to be exported as functional units or even as donations. On the other side, “proper” handling of Sweden’s used electronics doesn’t look much better. In the same report, Nordbrand identifies businesses such as Smålandsbörsen and Nadex that export our old computers abroad with the intent of minimizing the digital gap and giving our old equipment a second life. While under the impression that we are rewarding ourselves and the environment we are encouraged to replace something perfectly good with something new. Despite burning most of our household waste some of the most dangerous is still being produced and mishandled.
Though we are not always the end users or disposers of our e-waste, deflecting the problem elsewhere is ultimately an unsustainable short-term solution. Even under EU attempts to minimize the amount of e-waste exported, our e-waste dump exists far away from Lund or anywhere else in Sweden. This knowledge is both disturbing and unsettling as others are forced to live in the hazardous remains of our technology upgrades while Sweden’s forests remain lush, air fresh, and water clean.