Awesome way to tackle a bunch of problems at the same time: cell phones waste, global poverty, climate change

Summary

The global community faces a challenge: how do we lift developing nations out of poverty while avoiding the greenhouse emissions that come with economic growth and improving living standards?

Here’s an idea: steer some of the cell phones from wealthier nations that are in perfectly good condition away from overseas landfills and towards communities that could put them to use deploying renewable energy technologies.

Rich countries like America should also implement and enforce stronger regulations to reduce toxic electronic waste and keep exploitative corporations from dumping it in poor countries. 

The broader hope is that the spread of mobile phones will also have positive spillover effects and aid other global development efforts that hinge on information and communications technologies (ICTs) — in areas such as public health, democracy and citizen empowerment, data collection in anti-poverty programs, and primary education. More importantly, it could help strengthen the basic capacities of local citizens, communities, and academic institutions to innovate and scale up for themselves. 

Background

Accelerating “technology leapfrogging” will be especially vital to curb global warming: specifically, the innovation and spread of technology beyond the originating nation to make a high-energy, low-emissions economy possible everywhere. The urgency and magnitude of the problem is calling on us to revolutionize this positive spillover process, which is not happening fast and widespread enough.

Juxtapose that insight with another from the field of international development and the global anti-poverty movement: “the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development.” In climate change advocacy, the revolutionary potential of information and communications technologies (ICTs) are obvious in the new ways that cell phones are being deployed all around the world: Tanzanians paying by text for their use of M-POWER solar home systems (rather than, say, kerosene lamps), which have meters linked to their cellphone numbers; Nepal’s rural communities exchanging warnings about weather disasters; and India’s small farmers, literate and illiterate alike, sharing tips about agricultural and climate risks.

Then consider the unfulfilled promise of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This international treaty was brought into force more than three decades ago in order to curb toxic electronic waste and stop its dumping in poor nations; the United States has signed the Convention but has not ratified it. Unfortunately, many old phones still end up in impoverished countries with toxic effects. It’s time for climate change and global anti-poverty advocates to revisit the issue so that we can solve multiple problems at the same time.

Actions Proposed

Here are a few ideas that could be taken by the Obama Administration as well as the international community at large to 1) curb the dumping of hazardous electronic waste in poorer, developing nations, 2) increase the adopt of mobile technology in those same countries, with an eye for enabling and enhancing climate change solutions, and 3) help spur investments in clean energy and environmental preparatory work.

  • Boost funding for international joint efforts that promotes universal access to cell phones as a minimum and eventually to Internet-enabled smartphones, as well as support research & development in mobile phone technologies in climate mitigation & adaptation.Such innovations include mobile payment apps for solar homekits, crowdsourced weather forecasting, texting programs that enhance agricultural know-how by small farmers.
  • Work together to secure pledges from private telecom and electronics firms to participate in new systems that collect, refurbish, and distribute mobile phones to communities in developing nations and make affordable Internet access/data plans available to those local populations. Those companies should be held responsible for safely recycling or disposing of mobile phones that cannot be included.
  • Aggressively push those companies to redesign their products to facilitate the new recyling and distribution systems, plus enhance compliance with the Basel Convention.While America is not a party to the Convention, all other industrialized nations are – and those countries should exercise their authorities so as to make international compliance the cost-effective option.
  • Emphasize a bottom-up approach to identifying the innovation gaps of local populations, supporting local academic institutions and entrepreneurs, and matchmaking more effectively between potential participants in a technology transfer between nations.
  • More effectively play matchmaker between local problems and potential solutions. One approach would be to establish or commission the creation of a crowdsourcing platform to which ordinary citizens of developing nations can submit curated and translated descriptions of the day-to-day technology-related barriers they face – and to which experts can provide their curated responses.
    This effort would also facilitate connections between universities, scientists, non-governmental organizations, and firms within and between countries. One model is www.movements.org, which connects human rights activists and refugees in various countries with translators, lawyers, and other experts.
  • Formulate recommendations for any new agreements needed under Article 11 of the Basel Convention, as well as existing cell phone recycling/waste policies such as the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

References

World Resources Institute, “ICTs as a Key Technology to Help Countries Adapt to the Effects of Climate Change.”

CNN, “Mobile phone: Weapon against global poverty” Oct. 9, 2011.

The Christian Science Monitor, “Africa’s quiet solar revolution” Jan. 25, 2015.

Secretariat of the Basel Convention, “Basel Convention Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative” June 30, 2010.

Center for Global Development, “Are We Doing Enough to Support Technology Transfer to Developing Countries?” May 29, 2014.

Global Environment Facility, “What is Technology Transfer for Climate Change?