The ICT Supply Chain from the Doculatino Film Festival 2019:

What is inside your smartphone, where does it come from and where does it end up?

Our Catapista Hernán Manrique wrote the following interesting and critical piece about the ICT supply Chain of electronic devices, by analysing and reviewing the three documentaries from our last Doculatino Film Festival.

Introduction

During October and November of last year, CATAPA organized the Doculatino Film Festival. Held in the cities of Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven, this edition of the festival was part of the Make Information and Communications Technology (ICT) fair European campaign, whose goal is to achieve a more transparent and fair ICT supply chain.

The documentaries showed various insights into the globalized ICT supply chain of some of our favourite devices. The first documentary, Minga (2019), directed by Damien Charles and Pauline Dutron, takes us into a journey through Latin America where it shows some of the major environmental conflicts between local communities and multinational mining companies. Death by Design (2016), directed by Sue Williams, explores how employees from the ICT supply chain work in unsafe environments where they come into touch with toxic substances during the production and assemblage of computers, smartphones, etc. Finally, The E-Waste Tragedy (2014), directed by Cosima Dannoritzer, reveals what happens with our electronic devices once we stop using them, showing that whether we recycle them or not, they reproduce vicious patterns of toxic waste disposal in developing countries.

©IrisMaertens

This review intends to discuss some insights on poorly known aspects of the ICT supply chain, as well as to introduce some alternative scenarios as portrayed in the documentaries.

Let’s try to answer some questions

Did you know that your smartphone resembles a mine of precious minerals and rare elements? It might seem odd, but each smarthphone contains at least 60 different minerals, such as cobalt, lithium, gold, copper, and so on and so forth, that are extracted from all over the world. Such variety is so large that, according to the Geological Society of the United Kingdom, the average smartphone uses 75 out of the 81 elements in the period table.

Extracting these materials at the large-scale needed for the ever growing ICT demand is a daunting challenge that requires millions in investments. Companies are always exploring new areas where to find these materials that allow the permanent interconnection of our digital economy. However, as with many other things, there is a very different picture at the other side of the coin.

©IrisMaertens

What are the social and environmental costs of mining in developing countries? Scientists from all disciplines have continuously shown the large social and environmental damages produced during mineral extraction. Are they inevitable? That is hard to tell, but what we know is that efforts to regulate mineral extraction are rarely enough and its accountability differs widely from one corner of the world to another. Environmental and labor safety regulations in poor and developing countries are usually sacrificed to the laissez-faire of free markets. For this reason, developing countries with plenty of mineral resources have sometimes been signaled as being ‘cursed’ by such abundance. Having said this, now let’s see how our three documentaries can help us to understand how such ‘curse’ works.

Minga presents some of the major struggles from various communities in Latin America against mining extraction. At these first stages of the ICT supply chain, rentier states seek to encourage extractive industries to invest in their national territories through various stimulus, such as low environmental and social regulations, financial incentives, etc. In many cases, governments portray such investments as a promise of modernity for rural communities near mining concessions that are depicted as ‘pre-modern’ or ‘left behind’. However, both environmental and social externalities affect the livelihoods of people from these areas. Heavy metal pollution, respiratory diseases, decreasing outputs in agriculture, etc. are some of the main consequences of inadequately environmental regulations in the mining sector.

For these reasons, it shouldn’t be a surprise that various communities near mining zones have risen up against extraction. Among many other cases, Minga shows one of the greatest conflicts against gold mining in Peru: Conga. This case became infamously known due to the agressions from part of the Yanacocha company and the Peruvian security forces against Maxima Acuña Chaupe (Goldman Environmental Prize 2016), a peasant woman from the Andean region of Cajamarca who refused to sell her land to Yanacocha. However, despite gaining global recognition in environmentalist circles for her defence of water sources, her life is still in danger. Maxima’s case is not an atypical story; hundreds of persons have lost their lives for opposing the extractive industries. Several cases from extractive localities in the Global South show that sometimes the rush for obtaining these precious minerals and rare elements needed for our devices privileges profit over life and the environment.

After extraction, minerals travel a long way to finally reach the facilities where, after several transformations, they are turned into key pieces of our ICT devices. Death by design takes us on a journey from mid 1970’s and 1980’s California to contemporary Shenzen in China to reveal what happens behind the scenes of this billion dollar industry.

Electronics and semiconductors necessary for personal computers require a large use of toxic chemicals, such as sulphuric acid, hydrazine sulphate, etc. Some decades ago, these products were mainly produced in the United States. However, in the midst of what would be later known as Silicon Valley, the increasing number of ill workers due to the exposure to such chemicals led to hundreds of lawsuits against some of the major ICT companies of the time. Not only there were accused of causing severe illnesses, such as brain cancer, breast cancer, etc. but also of polluting underground waters by storing chemicals below ground. After thousands of petitions, the Environmental Protection Agency from the United States obliged major ICT companies to clean up sites they contaminated.

However, this was only a partial triumph. Given that since the 1980s companies have enjoyed more flexible legislations to relocate their investments elsewhere, they decided to go abroad. Heavier environmental regulations in the United States led to a massive search for free-regulations areas across the world. It’s in this way that Shenzhen in China became the main hub for this industry. With inadequate labor regulations, companies could operate at a much rapid scale and with less concern for workers. Soon outsourcing would become the rule. With almost no labor rights and high production quotas established by ICT companies, outsourced workers became increasingly exploited. Death by design shows some of the consequences of such lax regulations. These include several accidents in the plants, disastrous explosions and fires in assembling facilities and even suicides during working hours.

Finally, the E-waste tragedy traces the path that electronic devices follow after we stop using them. Why would this be a tragedy? The documentary cleverly starts by portraying the dumping sites where they end up in Africa where the massive accumulation of toxic e-waste poses great environmental and public health problems for developing countries that import developed countries’ waste. But how did all this e-waste end up there?

 This is exactly the challenging question that the E-waste tragedy seeks to respond. E-waste trafficking is a criminal activity that involves millions of dollars. According to the experts interviewed in the documentary, despite EU regulations to prevent e-waste trafficking, more than 65% of these products never reach an official recycling plant and less than 1% of mobile phones are recycled in Europe. Thus, most e-waste is not recycled, but sold to the black market, where it is later exported through the main European ports.

But there is more. Once ICT devices end up in African dumping sites, large groups of people, especially children, dismantle smartphones and others electronics with their bare hands in search not just of screens and batteries but also of small electronic pieces, such as buzzers, transistors, capacitors, etc. After collecting some considerable amounts of electronics, these are later sold to brokers. This situation is similar in surrounding areas of Shenzhen, where Chinese workers use rudimentary and toxic methods to identify valuable electronic pieces from old devices. These products are then refurbished before getting into circulation once again. Again where? In China.

Screening of the documentary "Minga" in Brussels.

But how do these old devices (of which many of them were supposed to be recycled) and their small parts get their way into China? E-waste trafficking has Hong Kong as one of its main routes to enter China. The port of Hong Kong, one of the largest in the world, is a free port with low customs regulations. With more than 63,000 containers arriving everyday, Hong Kong represents a privileged entrance into the Chinese market. Indeed, it has been estimated that 36,000 e-waste containers enter China through Hong Kong every year. After arriving, most of the e-waste, once refurbished and repaired, find their way into Shenzhen, which is strategically located a few kilometers from there. Finally, all these different electronic devices and their small parts are offered as new in Shenzhen, where once bought they travel to new destinations to be sold and resold again and again.

Main lessons from Doculatino and steps further

The three documentaries screened in Doculatino show a reality that is hard to deny. The ICT supply chain involves several formal regulations and decent jobs around the world while at the same time it also allows the advancement of groundbreaking technologies that are changing the world. However, all this progress is also accompanied by more negative issues, such as conflicts, environmental pollution, child labor, e-waste trafficking, etc. We might not be aware of such problems, because most of them occur far away from the comfort of our homes. And that is exactly one of the main concerns that these documentaries point out: even without knowing it, we might be contributing to some of these hazards that affect thousands or even millions of lives around the globe.

What can you do?

Inform yourself about how ethical your devices are: There are several websites with relevant information on the provenance, labour conditions, and other characteristics of our devices. You can find some of them in the following links:

Make sure to hand your old devices to certified recycling operators: Recycling is not as easy as it sounds. Some companies offering to recycle for free might actually be part of E-waste trafficking networks. Don’t forget that most of EU’s e-waste is never recycled, but rather trafficked. Here you can find some useful links:

Think twice before buying a new electronic device: Instead of reproducing the vicious cycle that most electronic devices follow as seen in these documentaries, repairing your devices can be a much better option. It’s cheaper, it’s easier and it’s much more sustainable. Here you can find some links that show you where to repair your devices (you will be surprised that even some of them encourage to do it yourself!):

Think circular: If you want a more fair and sustainable future, it’s about time to start thinking circular!

Author: HERNÁN MANRIQUE LÓPEZ


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