“Being members of these coalitions, we act in solidarity with the other groups, who have similar philosophy, share information and knowledge and support each other in our local efforts.”

This excerpt is taken from one of my all time favorite books, David Pellow’s Resisting Global Toxics. It highlights the great power in forming transnational networks for communities working towards environmental justice. As Pellow shows, and as those working with the ELAW network know, sharing knowledge, resources, and legal tools are all parts of an effective response to environmental injustices around the world.

In his book, Pellow examines the global waste trade and the movement of toxic substances from one community to another.  It is a problem that has emerged in light of the production of new types of waste, namely that from technologies created post World War II. A recent example, the waste produced from computers, cell phones, and mp3 players, is one that we can all relate to, as we read this post using those very devices. What happens to our computers when we no longer use them? It is an answer shaped by a multitude of factors, which include both legal and economic systems. While many countries have passed legislation to ensure that e-waste is recycled in a safe and responsible manner, these laws can often be circumvented by finding countries with less stringent laws or enforcement. Because proper waste disposal can be expensive,  e-waste often ends up being forced on communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where it is unsafely disassembled and resold for spare parts or sits discarded in heaps of e-waste.

The danger of such a system, above and beyond the obvious ecological harm caused by polluting vast areas of land with waste, is that these technologies are often produced using highly toxic materials. This creates a public health problem because substances such as lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs) come to contaminate groundwater supplies and bio-accumulate in plants, animals, and microorganisms. As Pellow illustrates, the 315 million computers that were discarded between 1997 and 2004 contained more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. When disposed of improperly, the humans exposed to lead suffer damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, the blood system, and kidneys.

What is an effective response to this extraordinarily unfair environmental burden? Groups around the world have mobilized to find safe ways to harvest materials from these devices for recycling, to push for production of electronics using safer materials, and to pass legislation to ensure that recycling facilities are properly situated and operated to have the smallest ecological impact possible. This type of work is much more easily done with the assistance of an international network of people who have experiences to share about passing legislation and enforcing laws, and who have scientific knowledge about these hazardous materials and their effects.

Pellow does an excellent job making visible the connections between technologies and their toxic waste, between those who use these technologies and those who bear the environmental burden, and between communities around the world experiencing similar situations despite vast differences.  It is our job to use those connections to aid our transnational response to the problem of e-waste. That’s what the ELAW network aims to do. It creates interpersonal connections that facilitate knowledge and resource sharing, which allow an effective response to the problem.

Ship-breaking in Bangladesh, PHOTO: ©Brendan Corr, http://www.brendancorrphotography.co.uk

The use of this network has already achieved great victories against global dumping of toxic substances.  By collaborating with ELAW partners working in their communities, we have effectively fought against ship breaking in Bangladesh and promoted the clean up of pesticide dumps in Nepal, Ukraine and South Africa. We look forward to using the ELAW network  for even more victories against the dumping of toxic substances in 2011.

For more information about e-waste check out our recent posts.

Michele Kuhnle
ELAW Donor Liaison