E-waste Workers' Health: Who is Responsible?

Mukda Pratheepwatanawong June 18, 2010

Electronic Products in Ningbo 2nd Hand Market (Pictures from Urban-Media Network Fieldtrip)

(Some parts in this text are duplicated and developed from the essay and research which I did on Electronic Waste for the Urban-Media Network module.)


There have been concerns and issues about workers’ health on the other end of the electronic products life-cycle chain. As there have been reports written about the poor and risky working condition that workers face in the electronic waste recycling industry, this short article is brought up to discuss who should be responsible for the health of workers who deal with electronic waste.

The main objective for most electronic producers is to launch advanced products, with modern designs, containing high speed technologies and high resolutions. Few companies pay attention to what happens to the previous products that consumers bought from them. Many companies think that as long as they can make profit, gain customer satisfaction and create brand reputations in the market place, they will launch the products. Because they are less concerned with how the process of producing/recycling electronic items have impacted on the environment or workers’ health, this raises the question whether electronic industry should be considered as a ‘creative’indusrtry.


Electronic producers are concerned about environmental issues and workers’ health to an extent. The main page of most creative industry websites consists of all the relevant information that consumers have to know and these include, price, model and product specification. However, the main page contains limited information about the company being responsible of their products at the end of the product life-cycle. Consumers who are environmental friendly will need to search for the ‘Corporate Responsibility’ link in order to gain more information about how the company is responsible for their products at the end of its life cycle. As a result, very few consumers would search for such icon and this reflects that not many consumers care about electronic waste.


As an electronic consumer myself, I would say the main factors that influences the consumers’ decision before they buy an electronic item is value for money. This includes factors such as price, quality and performance.Electronics are things which we have to use and there is nothing much that consumers can do to improve the production process or recycling process. Even though there are news reports on how much producers harm the environment or how unfairly workers in the electronic industry are treated, however, we still see people buying advanced products from those brands. Therefore, in my opinion, consumers not only have responsibility of buying and using electronic products, but they also have responsibility in recycling them in appropriate was when their products reach the end of the life-cycle.


The extent to which workers’ health are affected depends deeply on how the recycling factories deal with unwanted electronic components and how much they pay attention to basic health protection for workers. In general, recycling requires the burning of metals and plastic would have caused adverse impacts on the environment and human health (Maxwell and Miller, 2008). But, as an electronic waste recycling factory, it is arguable that it is their duty to deal with those components even though these methods have negative consequences for the environment and people.


The improvement of labour working condition in recycling factories could cost the factory money (Rossiter, 2009), which not all factories owners are willing to pay for it. However it could be argued that recycling factories are the only stakeholders who have the inside knowledge on how to improve the methods of dealing with the electronic waste and therefore they play a significant role in being responsible for the impact on the environment and worker’s health.


To conclude, electronic waste is a major issue to workers and people who live around those factories, but it has not been a major issue to the producers or the electronic waste recycling factories owners. As there is a variety of stakeholders for electronic items, the question of who is responsible for the health of workers who deal with electronic waste is still a big question mark. The answer to this question would depend highly on which aspect of electronic waste we are looking at and it would require a deeper investigation and identification of the role of each stakeholder in the electronic life-cycle chain.


References and Links:


Greenpeace (2008) Chemical Contamination at E-waste Recycling and Disposal Sites in Accra and Korforidua, Ghana


Levin, Dan (2009) 'China's Big Recycling Market Is Sagging', The New York Times, 11 March


Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008a) 'Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?', Urban China 33: 28-29


Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Tob (2008b) 'Ecological Ethics and Media Technology', International Journal of Communication 2: 331-353


Meng, Xing (2009) 'An Investigation of the Situation of E-waste Recycling: Concerning the Recycling Industry in Ningbo' 


Pratheepwatanawong, Mukda (2010) 'Should Importing of Electronic Waste be Illegal in China?'


Rossiter, Ned (2009) 'Translating the Indifference of Communication: Electronic Waste, Migrant Labour and the Informational Sovereignty of Logistics in China'. International Review of Information Ethics 11


Wu Jiayin (2009) 'The Junk Man Cometh: But He Won't Recycle', Shanghai Daily, 16 February