Moral Dilemmas

I sat down and watched this this morning. It documents where the tin that ends up on computer boards comes from - and lists the cost in human life.

Now it's really easy for me to distance myself from the miners in the Congo and say "not my problem". Their labours yield something that travels far to get to initial manufacturer, further to get to the folk that put things together, and further to reach me. Much, much further down the line those goods end up on my workbench for recycling - years away from when it all started.

Yet I can't help but feel that I should be doing something, making some sort of noise to stand up for these people's rights and ease their situation. I know one small (female, white) voice in the sea of African turmoil is not going to do a thing to stem the tide. If I were to turn up there in person, I'd probably be killed.

I can't boycott the producers. I'm that small a fish in the sea that it's not going to even register on their radars.

I want to help, but there's nothing I can think of to do.... and that's my moral dilemma. I'm working with and in an industry that is (un)knowingly exploiting human life to maintain momentum. I depend on the IT industry for my livelihood.

Perhaps the regulations to change over from lead to tin in manufacturing started as good intentions - but they've had trickle-down effects that may simply have never been imagined. And it's snowballed to way beyond controllable levels. It's only going to end when the raw materials run out.

So can I do anything at all? Or is it futile?

Maybe the little I do to recycle old electronics is what I am meant to contribute. Keeping those elements out of the landfills, making them available for re-use instead of digging out new metals may just help save on the scale of exploitation down the line. Both human and natural.


Everything needs a market. Even recycling. You'd think that once you dump something in a recycling container it magically transforms into a clean, green, back-to-nature product... or melts away.

Unfortunately it's not like that.

Recycling other people's waste is a dirty, dusty, sticky, somewhat dangerous affair. Each element separated out is passed on to a processor or someone else who further works it beyond what you can.

And when the market for elements drops, there's problems.

The Times has the details - when demand for these falls, things pile up. Where once you had recycled items moving smoothly from consumer to recycler to processor / re-manufacturer, recycling centres start to look worse than the problem they're trying to solve.

It's a huge issue world-wide. Not only has demand for certain elements fallen, but the bottom has crashed out of the commodities market. A recycler who was previously being paid a buck for a kilo of steel is now being paid a quarter of that. Name a metal, and it's the same story. Plastics, glass, everything is bottoming out.

Costs of collection and processing haven't fallen though.

So everyone waits. Sorted waste piles up, empty spaces are found for more - and we wait. For better days, for better prices - and hope we don't have to flog everything at a gigantic loss simply to clear the floor again.