Author Archives: Hannah Bisbing

E-Waste Dumping

Today, electronics are a normal aspect of life. In fact, electronic technology is practically required to live comfortably and to work efficiently at the developed world’s standards. New and improved technology appears every single year, like Apple’s iPhone upgrades or the ever expanding Samsung Galaxy phone/tablet line. While those of us living in a consumer economy willingly buy the latest gadgets year after year, how often do we think about what happens to our old equipment?

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Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a modern problem that takes a toll on both the environment and on humanity. This “high-tech trash” includes, but is not limited to, televisions, computer monitors, keyboards, mice, processors (CPUs), printers, scanners, fax machines, pocket computers (PDAs), walkie-talkies, baby monitors, certain kinds of watches, and cell phones. Anything digital that is no longer being used qualifies as e-waste. Trash of this sort is actually the most detrimental, in regards to both its growth rate and its toxic decay. As told in a National Geographic examination, “Added together, this information-age detritus makes up the fastest growing category of waste in the U.S. And the more complex the circuitry, the more complicated the equipment’s disposal, since electronics contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium that pose a hazard to both humans and the environment.”

Facts on E-Waste

  • We throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States
  • Over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually
  • E-waste amounts are expected to rise 21% by 2018 (to 50 million metric tons)
  • Cell phones, microwaves, and dishwashers are the most common e-waste
  • The main driver of e-waste is a growing middle class in places like China and India as well as short lifespans of tech equipment
  • E-waste is advertised as being recycled within origin countries, but this typically is not what happens in reality

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According to a report by the United Nations University (UNU), the world produced 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste in 2014. Combined, this trash would fill 1.15 million 18-wheel trucks. When lined up, those trucks would stretch from New York to Tokyo — and back.

Unsurprisingly, the United States and China are the biggest producers of e-waste. Together, the U.S. and China produce over one-third of all e-waste. Wealthy nations in northern and western Europe, like Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, are also big contributors. Conversely, the lowest producers are located in the developing world, including Africa and Oceania.

However, the people who generate the least amount of e-waste actually face the brunt of the issue and its worst consequences. Much of the e-waste created in wealthy nations is shipped oversees, often illegally, in enormous quantities. Many times, promises of recycling and green renewal to this type of trash are made, but such hopes are often not fulfilled. Only one-sixth of e-waste is actually recycled or reused. The rest, as has long been documented, ends up in landfills, mostly in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

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This dumping is not just environmentally harmful and ethically horrid; there is a purely anthropological health concern tied to it as well. Overseas shipments of electronic waste -mostly to Africa and Asian – has created a market for parts scavenging and valuable mineral extraction. These tech products hold bits of precious metals within them, like silver, copper, platinum and gold. E-waste and mines are therefore comparable to urban mines, located right within cities at the disposal of anyone willing to hunt for desirable parts. Scavengers salvage worthwhile components and minerals from this waste – which is an extremely time consuming and dangerous process. Many discarded electronics contain toxic materials. When such items are opened up for part-picking, the toxic substances are released and terrible adverse health effects ensue, like increased cancer cases, miscarriages for women, and high levels of lead in the blood.

The illegal shipment of waste to underdeveloped Southern nations has caused global uproar. Waste facilities and even entire countries are labeled as criminals who practice bioracism, the purposeful targeting of poorer world areas consisting predominantly of colored communities. In 2005, the Basil Action Network found 500 shipping containers of electronics arriving in Lagos each month.

Mountainous e-waste accumulation is a current problem in places like Africa and Asia, but this issue will have global implications. Unless consumption habits change dramatically and e-recycling improves significantly, our world is going to be overrun by garbage. There will be no space left to dump our disposed goods anymore. Serious attention needs to be given to this area of concern and major policy changes must be implemented before irreversible damage is inflicted upon ecosystems, economies, and humankind.



Land Grabbing: Modern Day Imperialism

Throughout the world, land is increasingly disappearing. Farmland is being stripped from its long-time owners by large corporations, destroying cultural ties, traditional agriculture, and ancestral grounds along the way. Within the past few years, the Global North has bought out huge chunks of Southern territory through large scale land acquisition deals. In colloquial terms, this recent phenomenon of international land transactions is known as land grabbing.

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Land grabbing is the buying or leasing of substantially expansive pieces of land in undeveloped/developing countries. These transactions are often completed by large transnational companies and governments, but individual players also contribute on occasion. Agricultural territory in the Southern Hemisphere, Africa especially, is purchased and transformed for the purpose of food or biofuel production. In fact, most land grabbing deals end up being dedicated to producing crops used in biofuel, like the un-edible Jatropha plant.

Utilizing land for non-food crops instead of food production became popular following the worldwide for crisis of 2007. When grain and soybean prices more than doubled over the course of a year, people panicked and serious steps were taken to curb the inflation, like restrictions of grain exports. With food security in question, corporations from importing countries began buying up land in areas all around the globe to protect themselves from future strife. However, such deals ended up having an adverse, opposite effect in the long run. Instead of keeping agriculture as the top priority and planting edible crops, opportunities for green fuel production stole the world’s heart and wallet. Today, biofuel production is the most serious competitor to food production.

Since 2007, hundreds of land deals have been made and the ownership of millions of acres of farmland has been transferred. In a 2010 report, the World Bank identified 464 land acquisitions that were in various stages of development between October 2008 and August 2009. The actual quantity of land involved was only known for 203 of the 464 projects, yet it still totaled more than 140 million acres. To give some perspective, this acreage amount is more than the combined total of all corn and wheat plantations in the United States. Additionally, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that 21% of the 405 projects with known commodity information produced biofuels and another 21% was used for cash crops like timber and rubber. Only 37% of land was dedicated to the production of food crops. The usage of the remaining 21% was unknown.

As should be expected, roughly 70% of the world’s land grabs occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of this land consists of just seven countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Zambia. Africa is a highly sought place for these transactions because of enormous flatlands availability as well as the shear cheapness of leases/purchases. For instance, an acre of land in Ethiopia can be leased for less than $1 a year. Countries with scarcer amounts of land have much more expensive prices.

The second most targeted region for land grabs is Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Latin America also possesses promise for land-hungry companies, particularly land in Brazil and Argentina. The Chinese corporation Chongqing Grain Group is currently harvesting 500,00 acres of soybeans in Brazil’s for export in China. Their arrangement allows 1.5 million tons of soybeans to be harvested per year.

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The most land-grabby countries include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Significant reasons for their interest in external production are population levels and land shortages. Populations in these areas have diminished their land and water resources, making international scouting necessary. The economies of these countries are also highly dependent upon imports. For instance, South Korea imports 70% of its grain, and it has become a major land investor in several countries.

China and India are also contenders in the land race, facing aquifer and cropland depletion due to growing populations, urbanization, and industrial development. China has recently become a leading grain importer and is also the top importer of soybeans. India has an ever-growing population to feed, with an estimated addition of 450 million people by 2050. With such huge numbers of people and such little space, India is unsurprisingly concerned about food security in future years and, thereby, interested in obtaining arable land elsewhere.

With food security fears and the availability of cheap land leases in the Southern Hemisphere, land grabbing is a practice that will likely continue in following years despite its ethical questionability. While there have been NGO outrages and global protests to land grabbing, like in India, something of this scale is not going to disappear quickly or easily. According to Lester R. Brown, the president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., “It is becoming increasingly clear that future food security is integral to the future of global security as it is more broadly defined. As land and water become scarce, as the earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. The conditions giving rise to this have been in the making for several decades, but the situation has come into sharp focus only in the last few years. The land acquisitions discussed here are an integral part of a global power struggle for control of the earth’s land and water resources.”

Check out Oxfam International’s video depicting the harsh reality that land grabs inflict on people throughout the world. It’s a current problem that definitely should not be ignored.


Conflict Diamonds

“Diamonds are forever.” The well recognized phrase that famously brings millions of individuals into union. Thanks to this phrase coined by De Beers’ Diamonds, these dazzling pieces of carbon we know as diamonds have become the universal symbol for eternal love. However, the truth behind the diamond industry certainly does not reflect its overwhelmingly shining exterior.

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Conflict diamonds are a serious threat to human rights and ethical business practices around the globe. According to the United Nations, conflict diamonds – also known as blood diamonds –  are “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” 65% of the world’s diamonds come from African counties. The most targeted areas for diamond extraction are particularly war-wracked areas with severe government instability, like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire. The World Diamond counsel confirms that diamonds are illegally traded to fund conflict in war-stricken, “resource plagued” countries in central and western Africa. Brutal wars have caused the deaths and mass displacements of millions of people. Diamonds have actually been used by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to finance their activities and money-laundering.

The diamond trade has a long and troubled history. Diamonds were first found in Sierra Leone in 1930. It was quickly realized that this area was richly abundant with the desired resource. By 1937, one million carats were mined and exported to Europe. By 1996, $15 billion of diamonds were sold and the spoils were enjoyed by players outside of Sierra Leone. The most infamous company reveling in these riches was the De Beers group. In 1935, the De Beer company formed the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, a company which controlled most of the country’s diamond production. For over 50 years, the De Beer company controlled most of the world’s diamond trade. It was a luxurious, yet dangerous, monopoly.

In the 1970s, anti-government groups tried to gain control of part of the diamond mining and trading industry. Their initiative was to gain money for weapons to use overthrow the government. The Revolutionary United Front was the most threatening of these groups. Formed in 1991, the RUF gained control of part of the diamond trade with help from Liberia. Diamonds were smuggled across the border into Liberia by RUF soldiers.

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Between 1991-1998, Liberia exported over 31 million carats of diamonds to Brussels, Belgium where the Diamond High Council is located. The Council is the organization that controls the world diamond trade. Diamonds imported into Belgium are exported to countries around the world where they are cut into cosmetic gemstones to be sold in jewelry stores. With the money gained from such enormous trades, Sierra Leone was able to purchase extensive supplies of weapons that funded mass terror. A war funded by diamonds.

Once the story broke about the blood diamond trade, organizations like the World Diamond Fund (2000) and the Kimberley Process (2003) formed to combat these human rights outrages. The KP seeks to stop the trade of conflict diamonds and to “ensure that diamond purchases (are) not financing violence by rebel movements and their allies seeking to undermine legitimate governments.” The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) imposes extensive requirements on its members (representing all 84 countries) demanding clear certification ensuring shipments of rough diamonds are ‘’conflict-free.” Participants must meet the KPCS’s minimum requirements, establish national legislation about export/import, and practice transparency with trades and data. To trade, other participants must met these requirements as well. A KP certificate accompanies diamonds proving that all requirements have been met.

We, as consumers, can and should take part in ensuring the diamonds that we buy are conflict free. Most diamond retailers now offer certificates with diamonds upon purchase. Zales and Kay Jewelers have policies detailing their efforts to sell only conflict-free diamonds. Furthermore, if you are of environmentally conscious nature like myself, you can check out Brilliant Earth. Brilliant Earth is a company that traces their diamonds back to their origins. Their diamonds are certified environmentally friendly and free of human rights abuses. Plus, 5% of profits is dedicated towards education, environmental restoration, and economic development initiatives in African (and other) mining communities.

Let’s help to make the world diamond trade as shiny as its outer facade.



Hydraulic Fracturing: An Environmental, Health-Related, and Ethical Debate

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Marcellus Shale. The two words that have started an energy revolution within the past ten year as well as cashed in big bucks for drilling industries. This natural gas-abundant shale formation lies deep under the earth throughout the northeastern United States from New York to West Virginia. Marcellus Shale and, especially, the extraction method of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) used to retrieve this natural resource has become a heated environmental and ethical discussion in both the public and political spheres. While fracking is not a new process by any means, the utilization of this procedure to obtain large quantities of natural gas in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years and has attracted heightened levels of attention. Typically people are either strongly in favor of the process or passionately against it. The pro side acknowledges/praises the job creation this industry supplies and appreciates that we are sourcing our own energy needs on our own soil instead of outsourcing from middle eastern countries. The con side predominately takes a stand against the negative environmental, human/animal health, aesthetics, and moral consequences of fracking. Ultimately, the heart of the issue revolves around priorities: choosing whether or not to place immediate energy gratification above the “health and longevity of our environment.”

The process of fracking for natural gas is a complicated, multi-step one. Before excavation can take place, several preparatory steps must be completed. First, a property lease for a piece of land must be purchased and extensive seismic testing must be done. Then an expansive, flattened area known as a pad is created to prepare for shale drilling. Next, a large drill is inserted into the ground, boring a hole all the way under an area’s water table. With the goal of protecting water sources, a concrete plug is driven at least five thousand feet under the earth’s surface to contain any inserted materials. Once these steps are completed, the collecting process can begin.

In the fracking procedure, large quantities of sand, chemicals, and water are injected deep into the ground. This trade secret “frack fluid” mixture (90% water, 9 ½% sand, 1/2% chemicals) is pumped at high pressures to reach the shale and to fracture the rock, which releases the highly sought, hidden source of natural gas. When extracting, workers drill down into the fine-grained shale vertically and then change to a horizontal direction for approximately a mile in length. Once the drill is in the desired location underground, a hollow, holed torpedo filled with explosives is inserted into the well, breaking through its casing to the shale lying at its sides. At this point, the fluid mixture is pumped into the ground to frack the shale. After the shale is broken, gas flows through the holes in the well casing and is taken to the surface.

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One of the most prominent concerns surrounding hydraulic fracturing is the serious possibility of water contamination. Seeing as drills, pipelines, and pipe casings are injected into the ground through underground aquifers to frack below an area’s water table, any breakage or leaks could allow frack fluid to flow out and to potentially ruin entire water sources. If well integrity is compromised, a chaotic chain of events could ensue, starting with pollution of one water table and leading to affected groundwater, streams, rivers, etc. What makes it even worse is the fact that this liquid mixture is laced with up to six hundred different chemicals, with many of them being toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive. A few of the common, known components include, but are not limited to, benzene, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde. Additionally, dangerously high levels of methane in drinking water have been documented in countless areas near fracking pads – as well as the ability to light tap water on fire due to such unsafe quantities. While many of these dangerous elements find their way into this liquid from being exposed to naturally-occurring minerals and salts under the earth’s surface, a significant number of them are expected to be ingredients in the drilling industry’s highly secretive frack fluid recipe. There have been thousands of documented water contamination cases in areas surrounding gas drilling sites as well as high numbers of reported sensory, respiratory, and neurological problems from consumption/exposure to damaged water.

Unsurprisingly, this reality has caused legitimate fear in the public sphere regarding human health impacts. For people living in areas near hydraulic fracturing sites, common health problems include nosebleeds, rashes, and headaches. However, more serious results have been known to occur, including birth defects, mutations, and death, in rare cases. These problems are inflicted by a combination of exposure to toxic air emissions and consumption of frack fluid-tainted water. As told by a 2011 research article in the Human and Ecological Risk Assessment journal, seventy-five percent of frack fluid chemicals can negatively affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs as well as cause respiratory and gastrointestinal systems of living organisms. Additionally, between forty and fifty percent of these chemicals were found to be capable of inflicting harm on the brain, nervous systems, cardiovascular systems, kidney functions, and immunity strength of living beings. Furthermore, roughly thirty-seven percent could damage endocrine systems and twenty-five percent could cause cancer and/or mutations. Even with such blatantly dangerous health consequences, the fracking industry still insistently believes that its practices are safe, beneficial, and justifiable.

And these issues are not just human-related; the same concerns apply to the farm animal and wildlife communities as well. Huge fish kills have occurred in frack fluid-contaminated waters and suspicious deaths of grazing animals who drank from a frack fluid-polluted stream have been noted as well. Spiked amounts of methane emissions escaping into the atmosphere, the issue of backwash fluid spilling out of containers, worker safety/exposure to crystalline silica, legal sketchiness surrounding the entire industry (Halliburton Loophole), and the blatant destruction of natural aesthetic beauty and community roadways from increased truck traffic are among the seemingly infinite number of concerns this procedure possesses.

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas – as well as for oil –  is not just an environmental concern; it is also a moral argument that seems to side overwhelmingly on the dangerous, negative side.


Sources: (image) (image)

“The Fisheries Blog: Fracking Harms Fish Through the Halliburton Loophole.” The Fisheries Blog: Fracking Harms Fish Through the Halliburton Loophole. 2 July 2012. Web. 10 Feb 2015.

“The Halliburton Loophole.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

“The Ethical Issues of Hydraulic Fracturing.” Great Lakes Waters. WordPress, 6 May 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.