A company that makes computers, phones and mp3 players brought out a new product yesterday. After months of feverish speculation in the world’s media that the new product might be a kind of computer, the company unveiled the product — a kind of computer — to the surprise and delight of a few thousand of its closest friends at a press conference in North America.
A company spokesman explained that the device, which we’ll call the iPaid, was bigger than a big phone but smaller than a small computer. He also pointed out that although you couldn’t phone with it, it could do many computer-type things like keeping you amused, and it was magical and revolutionary.
The questions not on everybody’s lips include how can they make these things so cheaply, and are they good for the planet?
The firms’ products include parts designed and manufactured by other North American companies as well as components and software from Asia and Europe. Other electronics giants do the same.
If only the factory mattered, your mobile phone or MP3 player would be a Celestica, Flextronics, Jabil Circuit, Hon Hai Foxconn, Sanmina SCI or Solectron. Each of these firms that most of us have never heard of employs between 50,000 and 200,000 people globally and has annual sales between $8 billion to $16 billion.
That’s what we mean by global value chains. Things are done where they’re most cost-effective, and the networks of international trade bring the various components to where they’re needed at each stage from design through manufacturing, and then to the shop where you buy the product.
This splitting up of tasks is one reason so many products are so cheap. However, the fact that they are so cheap means that we throw them away when they stop working, because we’re bored with them, or because a new and better version comes along.
According to the UN, 20 to 50 million tons of waste from electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, are generated each year from the products we throw away. Greenpeace estimates that only 25% of WEEE generated in the EU27 each year is collected and treated.
No precise data are available on whether the rest is stored, disposed of otherwise within the EU, or exported to developing countries.
Part of the 25% collected may also be exported, and hazardous waste exports are taking place despite an EU ban on such exports to non-OECD countries. Figures for the US are similar, with 80% of this waste incinerated, sent to landfill, put into “storage or reuse”, or exported .
The Probo Koala case shows what happens to some of it. In 2006, the tanker Probo Koala was trying to get rid of a load of toxic wastes that would have cost €500 000 to treat in the Netherlands. Too expensive. It offloaded the wastes onto trucks in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. The trucks then dumped the waste at 14 municipal dumps around the city. The resulting pollution killed at least 7 people and poisoned 9000 others, provoking vomiting, nosebleeds, headache and rashes.
Globalisation has brought down the cost of goods, making them, and their benefits, affordable to vast numbers of people. There are now 4 billion mobile phones in the world, but the price of your plan isn’t the only cost.
OECD website on ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change
OECD Sustainable Development web site
Greenpeace ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change