My analysis deconstructs the electronic waste (e-waste) industry and its interconnectedness to geopolitical forces and economic development. E-waste is definable as any type of discarded or obsolete electronic or appliance that has reached its end-of-life cycle. Scholarly e-waste research has generally focused on South East Asia and Africa with little emphasis on Mexico. My research aims to bridge this information gap and help chart the flow of e-waste sent to or produced in Tijuana, Mexico. Is the United States’ societal process of speed, mixed with constant growth industrialization fueling the overconsumption of electronics? Is this issue creating a correlation between e-waste pollution and slow/structural violence in Mexico? Furthermore, how does the e-waste industry influence geopolitical and economic relations between the United States and Mexico? New research into e-waste recycling near the U.S.-Mexico border shows an unfolding problem that can prove deleterious to humans and our environment.
The United Nations reports that 41 million tons of electronic waste worth $50 billion dollars is discarded per year globally an of this 41 million tons only 6 million is formally recycled. The remainder is sold to exporters where it is predominately shipped to developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, and India. This E-waste material is dumped into areas reminiscent of landfills where it is further scavenged by those living in poverty. The process continues with extracting rare earth minerals and other recyclable material to be sold on secondary markets.. These markets operate without much environmental or biological consideration for those being exposed to toxins associated with e-waste disposal. During the extraction process humans are exposed to hazardous chemicals such as: lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVC), hexavalent chromium, and brominated-flame retardants (BFRs).
Tensions created between balancing economy and human rights become apparent through the interconnectedness of each e-waste industry sector. These connections exist through the interaction of local governments, their legal system, secondary electronics market, informal recyclers living in poverty, and consumers. The amalgamation of these sectors creates the basis for impoverished humans to be paradoxically deemed dispensable yet indispensable. Their basic rights are sacrificed for the sake of geopolitics despite the damage it may cause.
I photographed scrap collectors living in poverty and refurbisher’s within Tijuana, Mexico. My findings suggest much of the e-waste in Tijuana originates internally and is propelled by the demand for technological modernity and the replacement of obsolete electronics. Most e-waste is mixed with metal scrap waste streams. A large refurbishing and resale market exist in Tijuana. A few non-profit organizations in Southern San Diego recognize the global e-waste problem and attempt to either refurbish or properly recycle e-waste. Inversely, the for-profit e-waste recycling sector operating in the same region becomes essentially responsible for the exportation of harmful toxic material to developing countries. This arguably creates jobs to those in poverty but by sacrificing their environment and biological health.
Select images from this series were used in conjunction with my Master’s thesis awarded by Hunter College. Final thesis can be downloaded here http://academicworks.cuny.edu/hc_sas_etds/111/. Partial funding for this research was provided by Hunter College’s Department of Anthropology Research and Training program (DART).
(Click first image to open up slideshow).