350 transatlantic ships filled with old televisions, computers, cell phones and microwaves. This is what the world is estimated to have generated in e-waste in 2019. Most of these devices ended their useful lives in wealthy countries, and then many of these remnants crossed the seas on ships bound for developing countries with more lax regulations on this type of waste. There, in huge landfills, this waste affects the health of people, including many children, who work and live nearby. This trend of exporting computer waste – very difficult to quantify due to the informal nature of the practice – is a relevant example of how the most developed nations externalize the negative consequences of their own consumption patterns.
This is one of the main conclusions of the latest study published by Unicef, the Innocent Bulletin 17 – Places and Spaces: Environments and Children’s Well-Being. Released on Tuesday, the paper surveys the well-being of children and the environment they inhabit in 39 OECD and EU countries. A priori, it was a question of comparing the quality of life of minors in these countries and of generating an international ranking, but the most striking observation is that, while some of the richest nations in the world offer very good living conditions for their young citizens, it also means that they generate an extremely negative environmental impact outside their borders; which could end up harming the health and the future of millions of children in the countries of the South.
This reality became evident through the conceptualization that was used in the study. The performance of each country in terms of the well-being offered to its children was calculated from an aggregate of three domains, each composed of different variables. On the one hand, the universe of the child, which is interested in his consumption of air, water and food, as well as his exposure to noise, cold, heat or substances harmful. Second, the world around the child, which examines the physical aspects of the environment in which they live, from housing to the environmental risks to which they are exposed. Finally, the whole world, which refers to the larger context in which the above is maintained; thus, the impact of conditions within a country can also be included externally.
As the unequal impact on the environment between countries has been talked about for years, the finding is not exactly a surprise. What it does is unequivocally crystallize a relationship between well-being, consumption and the environmental effect that occurs in the current functioning of the world, details Anna Gromada, one of the Unicef researchers. who conducted the study. “Everything that produces well-being presupposes a form of consumption. Building a well-lit house with clean walls, heating and privacy involves consumption; and all this contributes to well-being. However, these kinds of conditions tend to exist in rich countries, and this means that they are consuming at levels that are unsustainable in the long term.
To give a concrete example: if Finland, Iceland and Norway offer the best living conditions for their children, with very good housing, safe access to basic services and excellent water and air, they are among the countries with the most goods and energy consumption, the most carbon they emit – when calculated from their consumption – and those that generate the most electronic waste per capita. On the other hand, Colombia or Mexico show the worst performance in terms of air quality, despite being the least polluting in relation to the consumption of their own population.
This difference can be seen even more clearly if we only look at the case of electronic waste, which is why Gromada has decided to take a particular interest in this phenomenon. “On the one hand, it is the fastest growing type of waste, but it is not a waste like the others, it is toxic waste with dangerous substances such as mercury or lead. But we are also dealing with it in a particularly problematic way, because according to the available data, a large part is taken to the countries of the South”, specifies the researcher.
The generation of this type of waste has increased by 20% in the past five years and is expected to double in the next 16, according to data from The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020. Although the management of this waste must be carried out under very detailed control systems and there are several international agreements that prohibit its unregulated export, more than 82% of the waste caused in 2019 had an uncertain destination. Many of them likely ended up in illegal landfills in developing countries, where millions of people make a living by handcrafting the materials that have value inside the carcasses of electronic devices.
Of those informal workers scavenging for an electronic component made of a precious metal – normally reached by melting the plastic casing, releasing toxic smoke – 18 million are children, according to a groundbreaking report by the World Health Organization. health (WHO). In these conditions, they are the most affected by these practices, because their organs and their immune system are not fully developed. But electronic pollution also reaches the land, water and air in the surrounding areas, so the number of people who can be affected is even higher.
Meanwhile, in developed countries, people change their mobile every two years on average. “It is particularly perverse that this situation is caused by planned obsolescence. There is no scientific reason for this, it is designed for this. Production that makes a mobile start to slow down after two years and marketing that always makes us want new things. This is an interest that will clearly be attacked if we lower our consumption, which in my opinion is the best strategy”, adds Gromada.
The production of this type of waste has increased by 20% over the past five years and is expected to double over the next 16 years.
If the focus is on emissions, the same trend towards outsourcing can be observed. In this case, the measure that testifies to this is the carbon footprint – which includes emissions from internal consumption, those caused by public and private investments, as well as those integrated into goods and services – in relation to territorial emissions, which consider only the carbon emitted within a country. According to the carbon emissions chapter of the Global Inequality Report 2022, Europe has a carbon footprint 22% higher than its territorial emissions, while that of sub-Saharan Africa is 23% lower than the amount of carbon that it issues directly on its territory. .
In Mexico, for every thousand miners, an average of 3.7 years of healthy life are lost due to pollution
In the lives of people, and especially children, this means that those living in developing countries are generally more affected by polluted air while contributing much less to it in terms of consumption. In Mexico, for every thousand miners, an average of 3.7 years of healthy life are lost due to pollution. On the other hand, in Finland, barely 0.2 years are lost for every thousand children, whereas if everyone consumed at their own pace, nearly four planets would be needed.
Ultimately, this whole report is one more piece of evidence that supports an already well-known thesis. Its function is to serve to convince governments, companies and individuals to change their behavior. Something Gromada is watching, and most hopeful of in the Global South, are moves such as raising gasoline production standards in some African countries on their own initiative. “That things are as they are is not inevitable, it is a question of priorities and political will. But advances in life do not happen by chance, you have to fight for them”, comments the author of the report, encouraging developing countries to demand that the costs of consumption patterns be shared proportionally.
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