Amazon VS. E-waste: BCM310 Proposal

Project Proposal

This project will focus on the impact that large retailers have on the global problem of ’e-waste’, with a particular interest in how these companies attempt to mitigate their contributions to it. E-waste, which can be defined as any discarded electronic product, is the ‘fastest growing and most hazardous component of the municipal waste stream,’ according to the non-profit foundation As You Sow[1].

Because companies like Amazon, Best Buy and our own domestic retailers such as Harvey Norman and JB-HIFI are ultimately responsible for the sale of most consumer electronics and appliances, some argue that they too should be responsible for the ‘end-of-life management’ of these goods.

‘End-of-life management’ includes either the reselling of second-hand goods after refurbishment, or the responsible recycling of these electronics in compliance with officially sanctioned government or commercial means. In 2014, a United Nations university report on worldwide e-waste found that only 16% of the world’s e-waste was recycled in such a way[2]. The rest, according to Electronic Recyclers International (ERI)[3], is either:

  1. Discarded in landfill or incinerators;
  2. Gathered by individuals or private companies for unofficial recycling systems;
  3. Or is shipped off to the developing world for ‘informal recycling’.

John Lingelbach, executive director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, describes ‘informal recycling’ as two different processes. Either an individual who works in unfathomable conditions that pose ‘serious health and environmental risks’, or the more innocuous but unregistered businesses in countries like India that have begun employing people to break electronics down to their individual components and metals. This practice has also been labelled ‘urban mining’, referring to the potential of these recyclable materials, but the impact of the ‘toxic mine’ and its harmful chemicals also needs to be properly accounted for.

With Amazon arriving in Australia sometime next year[4], as mentioned frequently with my blogging this semester, now is an important time to analyse and question the responsibilities of large corporations regarding their relationship to the electronics they and others sell.

In 2009, US electronics chain Best Buy introduced an admirable e-waste recycling program which allowed people to submit their old, unusable or unwanted consumer electronics. Regardless of where the goods were purchased, they could be recycled for free at any Best Buy. Mark Gunther of the Guardian lamented competitors for not offering similar services, stating ‘Best Buy is collecting trash generated by Amazon, Walmart and other competitors’[5]. In 2015, Best Buy dropped the requirement of its recyclers to comply with R2 certification which indicates responsible recycling[6]. Then in 2016, after 7 years of free service, the chain was forced to implement a $25 flat fee for the disposal program. Meanwhile Amazon, writes Gunther, remains a ‘black box’ regarding sustainability and collaboration with industry bodies, whilst being ‘next to impossible’ to assess  in terms of social and environmental impacts.

Australia, for its part, is particularly susceptible to the effects of e-waste mismanagement due to some key factors that UNSW researchers have identified.

  1. Legislation is majorly flawed; the categorisation of e-waste is limited and roles ill-defined.
  2. Low population density and shortage of facilities; some consumers need to travel upwards of 100km.
  3. ‘Auditing, compliance and reporting measures’ are all unsatisfactory; there simply isn’t an efficient, systemic management of recycling.
  4. Different laws for different states; you can’t dispose of e-waste in South Australian landfills, but you can across the border.
  5. ‘Australians are the second largest producers of waste per person in the world’; we’ve an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem.

To surmise, I will be looking deeper into the way large companies engage with the typically unspoken issue of e-waste, and how their policies will further impact our country. Amazon’s forthcoming arrival, along with its lack of a recycling program, has the potential to worsen our already overly encumbered e-waste programs. I will make use of the aforementioned United Nations University report and as one of the primary sources of information for my project, as well as a series of five articles that the company Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. wrote for the University of Pennsylvania on their website[7]. These provide a thorough understanding of the state of e-waste globally and the various ways, both legal and otherwise, that companies and countries deal with it.

As for presenting my research, I regularly fall back on writing academic-style reports; however for this project I might instead try producing a single succinct, informative podcast to diversify my portfolio. One key challenge would be sourcing a quality microphone, but surmounting that, a podcast is certainly achievable. Having previously researched Amazon’s policies and operations for a different project, and possessing the knowledge to produce a podcast and embed it on my blog, I’m already partially prepared for the research project proper.

 Timeline

Week 10: Conduct further research. E.g. ‘Where do the likes of JB-HIFI, Harvey Norman and similar rank among Amazon and Best Buy?’

Week 11: Preliminarily enquire at building 25’s AV equipment hire office re: microphone. Receive feedback on proposal, incorporate it.

Week 12: Re-evaluate progress made and ensure I’m comfortable with what I’ve gathered. Begin transferring this information into audio-friendly syntax. Wednesday is my self-imposed deadline to ensure any last-minute problems can be dealt with.

Sources Referenced

As You Sow 2016, 2016 Shareholder Resolution, As You Sow, viewed 3 May 2017,
http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf

Baldé, C.P., Wang, F., Kuehr, R., Huisman, J 2015, The global e-waste monitor – 2014, United Nations University, IAS – SCYCLE, Bonn, Germany, viewed 3 May 2017
https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Meeting the E-waste Challenge, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/meeting-the-e-waste-challenge/

Jager, C 2017, Amazon Is Coming To Australia In 2018, Kotaku Australia, viewed March 30 2017,
https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/03/its-official-amazon-is-coming-to-australia-in-2018/

Gunther, M 2015, Amazon, Best Buy and the free rider problem, the Guardian, viewed 3 May 2017,
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Electronics Recycling: Competing Certifications Create Confusion, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/electronics-recycling-competing-certifications-create-confusion/

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Electronics Recycling: Competing Certifications Create Confusion, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017

In-text Citations

[1] http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf – As You Sow is dedicated to protecting the environment belief in, and advocacy of, ‘corporate responsibility’.

[2] https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf.

[3] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/meeting-the-e-waste-challenge/ – This article and the series it is part of will likely be referenced extensively in final project.

[4] https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/03/its-official-amazon-is-coming-to-australia-in-2018/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling

[6] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/electronics-recycling-competing-certifications-create-confusion/

[7] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/sponsor/electronic-recyclers-international-inc/

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