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.


  1. It is so great that you are sharing this information with your classroom. Students should know what happens to their old electronics when they get a shiny iPad for their birthday. I hope you continue to educate your students on the proper ways of recycling e-waste and how to select e-waste collectors and recyclers that are committed to socially responsible practices.

    1. I have to look up some computer recycling resources here in Michigan. It seems that most of the materials, information, and large projects are going on out in California (which makes sense since a large portion of the exports and imports go through that state).

      We have a few small recycling centers around where we live here, but I haven’t found any large computer recycling efforts from large waste management firms yet; just small non-profits and county programs that have “collection days”.

  2. That is a great blog post! I am very happy to hear that others are telling children about this global problem, which is unfortunately only getting worse. Thankfully, there are centers interested in researching these things and reinventing the electronics industry to make the electronic industry less harmful and more socially and environmentally responsible. There are a lot of responsible recyclers and refurbishers peppered through the entire United States.

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need any resources for your class. Great job!

    1. I’ve actually found a great deal of resources for my students to use that are locally based. I wanted to start there, because I thought it would help instill a sense that this isn’t just one of those “huge global problems” they can’t really do anything about; there are safe ways to dispose of electronics right in their own communities, and I wanted to help get the word out.

      We have found though, that many of the places to recycle are a bit scattered, or are run by corporate entities (Best Buy, major manufactures, etc.). We’re fortunate enough to have a couple of county wide solutions run by the county government. My plan is for the students to share what they’ve discovered via Schooltube, and even through the creation of some websites (www.stope-waste.yolasite.com is an example of one of the students’ early work). Perhaps we can work some of your resources into future resources that we produce 🙂

  3. I’ve done a similar talk as a guest speaker for six graders at my daughter’s middle school. We talk about the problem and I have the brainstorm solutions. One of the points I try to get across is the difference between want and need when it comes to the latest gadgets. It’s a tough sell with that particular age group. 🙂
    .-= Laura L. Barnes´s last blog ..E-Waste: Dumping on the Poor =-.

    1. I’ve actually been trying to check myself when it comes to steering them towards one solution or another. My personal beliefs are more in line with reducing our consumer-driven tendencies, but I stay open and let the kids come to their own conclusions, with the provision that their solution solves the problem, and not just a symptom of the problem.

      This creates all sorts of great responses from shifting consumer buying habits to manufacturers who make products with fewer toxins, to reaching out to educate others about safe places in the county to dispose or recycle their electronics. I actually had one group of girls that are starting a campaign to only buy jewelry that’s silver or gold, because some of the cheaper stuff can have toxic metals recycled from old e-waste 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing such an informative presentation about recycling e-waste, in such ways you can help educating the students or the community on how to recycle waste. I could also used this article in educating the students of The King’s Academy.

  5. Thank you for your inspiring perspectives and insight. I have been following your blog for a while now thanks to Online Education Database’s 2006 “Top 100 Education Blogs” listing.

    What struck me in this particular blog is your observation on the power of video in the classroom. I too have found the incorporation of video within my lessons highly effective. Visual representations reinforce concepts and intrigues and engages students. I teach eight grade social studies in California and find that technology integration as simple as a video clips reaches many of my students’ demographic learning spectrum. However, after the monotony and ennui of college preparatory lectures in other classes I think anything else would ignite a spark.

    I also support your methodology of proposing problems rather than positions. I utilize this pedagogy often in my classroom and find that it continuously reinforces critical thinking skills, collaboration, and effective problem solving on behalf of my students.

  6. What an excellent idea for a lesson that will greatly heighten students’ awareness of an environmental issue that is not often brought to the forefront of discussion. This lesson is certainly a unique approach – a departure from focusing on endangered species or pollution. This lesson will challenge students to think about where ALL of their waste goes and the global effects. The use of a video will certainly captivate students and bring this issue alive to them.

    1. I think there’s a lot more room to talk about pollution coming, especially with the number of toxic materials in products that we use on the rise. It would be really interesting to do an e-waste drive at a school, and see just how much of this junk people have lying around at their homes.

  7. The e-Waste problem is growing into a worldwide epidemic. Just because some countries ship their obsolete electronics to other countries to make it their problem, doesn’t mean we won’t suffer from the effects as well. Countries like China, India and Ghana that the rest of the world is exporting their e-Waste to have little or no regulations on recycling, disposal and few environmental restrictions. We need to increase regulation in the US and dispose of these products safely rather than pass the problem off to other countries who care even less. Just because their polluting their immediate environment, doesn’t mean ours won’t be affected by it in turn.

    Newport Computer services has locations in Rochester, New Hampshire and Morrisville, North Carolina. They specialize in the safe and responsible disposal and recycling of e-Waste and electronics products throughout the USA. http://www.newportcomputers.com.

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