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E-Waste: How the Ghosts of iPhones Past Haunt Vietnam's Low-Income Communities

The current e-waste crisis in Vietnam is one example of global environmental apartheid.

Prior to the iPhone 11’s recent launch, Google Trend statistics on September 10 revealed that more than 500,000 Vietnamese netizens had searched for “iPhone 11,” as Vietnam led global interest in the new product.

This attention to Apple products, although not representative of all Vietnamese, exemplifies the Vietnamese middle class’ overall welcoming and celebratory sentiment towards the rise of electronic consumerism. Since the beginning of 2000, the demand for electronic appliances has soared.

According to Sai Gon Giai Phong, a survey conducted by GfK Marketing Services found that in 2016, Vietnamese people spent VND1.57 trillion (US$67.6 million) on electronic and electrical products, and suggested that electronic consumption will continue to increase in coming years. Simultaneously, the electronics industry has been one of the most developed sectors in Vietnam’s economy, with high merchandise export and import values. The Vietnamese government has also created policies and infrastructure to stimulate the electronic industry and attract foreign investment.

Second-hand electronic devices and parts on sale at Saigon's Nhat Tao market. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

For a nation that has been through much historical turmoil, Vietnam’s present robust economy and consumerism hold optimistic connotations. In contrast to the past, when people could hardly meet their basic necessities, the current middle class can afford extra conveniences such as personal vehicles and electronics to enhance their lives. Electronic consumerism is a sign of modernity, and symbolically marks Vietnam’s success in “catching up with” the new global structure of development. Technology and its consumption inevitably creates hopeful and laudatory attitudes from the public and officials.

While media coverage continues to depict optimistic narratives about technological development in Vietnam, relentless electronic production and consumption results in dangerous realities. Alongside flashy new and ever-more convenient products, piles of electronic trash known as e-waste grow. E-waste refers to all electronic and electrical equipment items — such as information technology (IT) and telecommunication equipment, household appliances and lighting — that have been discarded by their first owners.

E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in industrialized countries, including Vietnam. According to Tuoi Tre, the Center of Development and Integration Vietnam reports that on average, one Vietnamese releases a kilogram of e-waste each year, totaling up to a yearly 90,000 tons of e-waste for the country. Moreover, because many technology companies purposefully shorten the lifespan of their products in order to sell new ones, and the middle-class with higher incomes often purchase the latest device as a token of prestige and status, the rate of e-waste growth is accelerating each year.

Unlike the chemical engineering or fossil fuel industries, whose pollution emissions are more visible, many still perceive the electronics industry — especially the IT industry — as a clean field. The common misconception is that the assembly and use of cell phones, TVs, or refrigerators generate little pollution. This discourages attention to the detrimental impacts of e-waste on the environment and public health.

Air conditioner parts being collected at Nhat Tao market. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

In reality, the majority of electronics, once discarded, are not recycled properly, and once the precious metals are retrieved, the leftover materials tend to be incinerated or dumped in landfills, or illegally shipped from higher-income countries to lower-income countries. In dumpsites, toxic chemicals from discarded electronics — such as lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs), hexavalent chromium, and brominated-flame — leach into soil, infiltrate underground and nearby water sources, and hazardously affect the health of local communities in the long term.

Besides, as e-waste contains precious metals and holds economic value on the resale market, informally recycling it is an income source for many people. However, recycling electronics under unregulated conditions is highly dangerous to workers. Heating e-waste, a common strategy for separating precious metals from other parts, emits noxious fumes that slowly mutilate bodies and nerves.

The essay collection Arts of Living on a Damaged Planetuses the concept of “ghosts” to describe signs of the past that linger and haunt the present. “Ghosts” complicate the demarcation of life and death, of past and present, and suggest how the afterlife of a subject or event continues to occupy, transform, and disrupt the present landscape and society.

For instance, although the war with America ended 50 years ago, its ghosts, in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to take life in Laos and Vietnam. Likewise, electronics, once discarded, do not just disappear. Whether their remnants are hidden from us or we choose to forget them, “they don’t sit still.” Their specters persist in the form of e-waste, inhabit other spaces, pollute the environment, and pose a threat to community health.

The ghosts of discarded electronics do not haunt everyone equally. Although middle- and high-income groups consume and enjoy the benefits of these electronics, it is usually those with fewer resources and lower socioeconomic status that bear the "slow violence" of e-waste. Areas of Vietnam where working-class and underprivileged people live tend to be affected by e-waste pollution. These people have to carry double burdens: the presence of domestic and international trash flows.

This situation is exemplified by the report "Use and Disposal of Large Home Electronic Appliances in Vietnam," in which the authors surveyed the use and disposal rates of large home appliances in Vietnam in three different areas: Hanoi, Hai Phong and Son La. The study finds that the average disposal rate is highest in Hanoi (the most well-off city of the three) and lowest in Son La (which the study describes as “one of the ten poorest provinces” in Vietnam). Meanwhile, most e-waste landfills or informal recycling sites are located in or near the lower-income areas and thus their residents are more likely to be the victims of pollution.

TVs being disassembled for parts at Nhat Tao. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The issue of environmental injustice related to e-waste also plays out on a global scale. According to the United Nation's STeP initiative to tackle the global e-waste crisis, a substantial amount of e-waste originates in affluent nations, where it is not recycled or processed properly due to the expensive cost.

Rather, this trash is exported and illegally dumped to lower-income countries under the disguise of “used goods,” while in fact they are non-functional, or mixed with other e-scraps. In Asia, Vietnam is one of the top destinations for such illicit dumping of electronic garbage, mostly in the form of household appliances. This situation has been exacerbated by recent e-scrap bans enforced in nearby Asian countries.

According to the Science and Development Magazine, the huge amount of e-waste illegally shipped to Vietnam ends up being littered or recycled under hazardous conditions. In this sense, the ghosts of technological consumerism and throwaway culture — not only in Vietnam’s middle-class neighborhoods, but also in many other developed nations — enter and disturb the more impoverished areas of the country.

Despite the perils of the e-waste crisis, there are still insufficient global management and national regulations to curb the garbage flows and their repercussions. Although many world leaders signed the Basel Convention to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations and especially from rich nations to poor ones, in reality, governmental efforts remain lax, and illicit movements still occur at a rapid rate. In Vietnam, there is little management to strictly stop the entry of illegal e-waste to the country, and there are no regulations over domestic electronic discarding and recycling. One can attribute such negligence in e-waste management to the fact that e-waste does not seem to be as urgent as other environmental disasters.

The contrast between images of optimistic lifestyles and appalling ghosts of electronics forces us to think about the problem of e-waste beyond an environmental contamination problem with ecological-focused solutions. The e-waste crisis is a social issue of environmental injustice, and that requires serious discussions about the correlation between economic disparity and exposure to pollution.

Thus, a solution for the e-waste crisis must be about controlling consumption and discarding, as well as actions to remediate pollution and regulate labor safety. Nevertheless, it must also be about lifting up the lives and social conditions of marginalized and impoverished people and compensating those who are afflicted by economic/environmental/social stress that pushes them to work in the hazardous conditions of informal e-waste recycling.

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