E-waste has been perceived as a social issue and the severe environmental threat across the world. The United Nations estimates that collectively the world now generates 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste every year. Remarkably, the consequence of e-waste is mostly taken by developing countries. Guiyu, China is often referred to as the “e-waste capital of the world.” The purely manual and disorganised dispose are extremely harmful to the labour healthy and local environment. Meanwhile, the moral issue such as heavy workloads and child labour also arises from the large volume of e-waste. The question we will debate here is whether electronics engineers have a main moral obligation to prevent the explosive increase of E-waste.
Engineers can do more
The recyclability of electronic products is the decisive factor of resolving e-waste. The recycling practices in Guiyu which cause serious environmental and healthy issue include the open incineration of wires to recover copper and the use of acid baths to retrieve gold. Also, the heavy recycling workloads is considered to incur moral issues. It has been videotaped that child labour in Guiyu extracting chips from circuit boards with chisels and hammers.
Engineers are fully capable of solving these problems by taking the recyclability into priority consideration. A positive example is Apple’s recycling robot, iPhone is designed to be recyclable by ‘Liam’ at the initial design stage. From the perspective of virtue ethics, those designers have shown their professionalism and perfectionism. They replace the traditional method with an advanced way to solve the recycling difficulties. If all engineers have such characteristics, the requirement of labour would be reduced. And the useful parts can be broken down further to recover materials for reintroduction more efficiently. Another possible action engineers could take is to design universal accessories which have the same function. Specifically, if the inside structure of all chargers is identical, the operation of recycling will be enormously simplified. Based on the current value of engineers, it is their freedom to design accessories with different concepts. However, they have not realized non-universal port of accessories increase the complexity of recycling and the volume of wastes. It is against the precondition of freedom principle that does not deny the pleasure of others.
If the E-waste issue is considered from the view that product designs result in recycling and handling E-waste hardly, engineers do have a moral obligation to the explosive increase of E-waste. Engineers are responsible for considering the recyclability of their products at the beginning of designing instead of only focusing on the other factors like appearance and profit. If the designers who are the most familiar with these devices do not try to figure out a significant way to handle the E-waste, who can have the better ideas to resolve it?
Let’s think about other stakeholders
The market strategy of a corporation greatly impacts on the production of E-waste. Apple had sold 570 million iPhones since 2007 which could be a huge source of E-waste when they reach the end of the road. When corporations push out a new product with more functions, many customers would purchase it and discard their old one. High pushing out rate shortens the service life of customers’ old products. If electronic corporations reduce pushing out rate, it is more effective than the method which focuses on how to recycle and handle E-waste. From the perspective of the companies looking at this case using utilitarianism, these corporations reduce their pushing out rate and make less profit, but they are the minority. The human on the earth is the majority which can enjoy the better environment and have more sources for their descendant.
The main E-waste is directly produced by electronics owners. The immoderate consumption by customers could dominate the explosive increase of the waste. Americans own nearly 3 billion electronic products. For each new product that comes along, one or more becomes obsolete.
Consequently, we’re storing or discarding older electronic products faster than ever. People chase new generation of product not always for the reason that their last one was unusable. Nowadays, the majority of customers lack consciousness about the uncontrollable E-waste growth. A conservative attitude of electronics consumption should be taken. People could restrain the unnecessary consumption voluntarily. Following utilitarianism, the contamination can be therefore reduced. It leads both the local resident in the destination of E-waste and the future global environment suffered less so that the greatest amount of happiness achieved.
The interventions by governments is a hugely important aspect of this moral problem due to the enormous scope of influence and the perceived severity of environmental damage. As for development of electronics industry, there is a distinct conflict between economic contributions and environmental impacts. Government functions like the role of monitoring and the managerial leadership of the authority are unavoidable and indispensable when the misconduct cannot be resolved effectively by public self-regulation. Indeed, ethics regulations by governments explicitly specify what constitutes good behaviour and misconduct. On such a basis, the ethics regulations might be assumed to significantly result in adjustments of the individual values and behaviour. Concerning E-waste problem, monitoring department is suggested to publish the annual environmental impact assessment which provides the reference for local government interventions. Whilst a standards committee organised by governments is set up to advise on the code, the role of the committee is crucial in promoting good conduct. In accordance with the utilitarianism, the code benefits for the greatest number of publics should be chosen.
You could say engineers should do more at the design stage even invent an advanced robot. However, whether the engineer’s idea can be reflected on real product is limited by their company. Indeed, engineers have the responsibility to make the world better, but they are not the root reason for the uncontrollable growth of e-waste. Therefore, they should not be blamed in this issue. As an individual, everyone should be responsible to the benefits of public and take an action.
Group 10: Pengcheng Bai, Dingsheng Xin, Liujun Yang & Zhixuan Gong