E-Waste: Dumping on the Poor
Every April I like to do at least one environmental-themed lesson or activity with my students. I’m not a granola-eating hippie that’s out to save Mother Earth, and I’m not a right-wing climate-change denier that claims humans couldn’t possibly wreak such havoc on the planet. I like to take the middle road, and that’s where I like to guide my students as well. Rather than start with a position, I start with a problem.
This month I’m sharing a short movie clip with my 5th graders about just one way that the world, and more specifically the U.S., disposes of their electronic waste; old computers, cell phones, digital cameras, etc. The problem I’m presenting to them is simple. Many thousands of pieces of technology are tossed out into the garbage each and every day. Some communities have recycling centers and programs for dealing with the toxic materials, plastics, and metal found in our electronics, but many communities simple don’t know what happens to e-waste that’s just tossed in the trash. A lot of that e-waste ends up overseas, dumped in rivers (yes, computers just dumped in a body of water as a disposal method), buried in landfills, or just left in piles. While the environment suffers in these areas, it’s really the inhabitants of that area, the poorest residents that is, that actually live in a lot of that trash, or make a living by digging through that trash, and subjecting themselves to a lot of toxins and pollutants as they strip old computer parts for valuable materials.
What I love about technology is that it gives us a very visual way to explain problems. Sure, I could tell kids about Guiyu, a city that has grown to be the largest importer of e-waste in China. I could read to them a newspaper article about how discarded computers choke off rivers, and the poorest workers in the city spend all day melting down plastic and computer chips, breathing in toxic fumes, OR I share the short YouTube video above so they can see first hand the bulldozers shoving computer boards into lakes, and watch poisonous gas escaping computer parts that are being “reclaimed”. The visual nature of it makes the problem that much more compelling, especially knowing that a lot of the e-waste came from the U.S.
Does it make it a bit more shocking? Yes, but sometimes problems of this nature need to be, and video lends itself well to that. The real focus though will be next week when I introduce my students to local recycling programs and centers that specialize in re-purposing old electronics, or find ways to recycle and dispose of old computer in an environmentally-friendly way. I’ll also show them a few more articles and videos that offer other solutions, and then see what sort of solutions the come up with for educating others in our community with the purpose of enacting simple realistic solutions that don’t cripple the entire computer industry or electronics economy (which of course we’re far from in danger of doing being a small rural town in Michigan).
A little dose of shock, thanks to technology, followed by a LARGE dose of practical reasoning is a nice way to do things to keep the students engaged in the post-Spring Break months.