Emerging Trends
April 12, 2018

An artist’s illumination on the health impacts of e-waste

By ITU News

Vanessa Balci is not afraid of getting her hands dirty.

She has been hard at work piecing together dusty scraps of metal, old keyboards, tangles of computer wires and smashed cell-phone screens to produce a monstrous artistic vision about our current e-waste culture.

On display at the Geneva Health Forum, Balci’s original artwork aims to provoke attendees to think about the growing health impacts of e-waste. She wants to illuminate an often hidden element of digital tools – the waste problem – to resonate with the conference’s theme, “Global Health in the Digital Age.”

The artwork’s sea of green is made up of trashed computer circuit boards. It beams out from the centre, using repeating patterns with (not-so) hidden messages written in old keyboard keys. It is hopeful yet foreboding.

It warns of a dark and tangled mess of waste, but also radiates positivity, in waves of organic looking swarms and colourful wires reaching out and towards the sky.

ITU News had a chance to interrupt her, while affixing huge panels onto the 8-foot tall scaffolding, to come down for a coffee break and to explain the motivations behind her project.

Art to spark e-waste debate

“That’s always what I am trying to do with my art… trying to mix in activism for the environment and our human communities and to raise awareness about the problem of trash in general,” said Balci, a French installation artist and environmentalist who was approached to produce an art piece for the conference.

This is Balci’s first time working with electronic waste. Her previous projects have focused on marine litter retrieved from beaches and ocean plastics.

One of her works in on permanent display at the Museum of Environment around Paris, a great thrill to her not because of the recognition, but because “the general public will have the chance to see and engage with the art on a daily basis.”

In her hometown, Bordeaux, she collected materials from waste disposal centres, Internet companies and individuals.

“Where ever I went to pick up the trash, and the e-waste, I found out that the vast majority of it hadn’t been used – at all! It was lying around, bought, but never used. It was brand new,” said Balci.

Because of the fast pace of the innovation cycle, equipment is often phased out after just a few months or years. And some electronics were being thrown out before they had never been switched on. A big problem and as Bacli explained, a common one.

Impacts of E-waste on health

It is estimated that 45 million metric tonnes of e-waste is generated each year, according to the E-waste Monitor. That’s about 4500 Eiffel Towers that are discarded without any hope of recycling or reuse.

The challenge is not just the scale of the problem at national levels, but also the health impacts of e-waste disposal.

“The [health burden] is massive in those countries where waste management is processed. When we are talking about France, which is where I am from, we are taking our waste to North Africa to be processed there and to Vietnam and India. When you look at how it is processed, without any security, or social or environmental protections for workers in those facilities, it is very scary. You have a lot of dangerous materials in that waste.”

How can one individual make a difference?

For Balci, individuals wield enormous power with their wallets.

She explained that individuals can plan to buy electronics that last longer than a few months. We can choose to bring them to recycling plants when we are finished with them. We can tell our government representatives to do more to manage e-waste. For Balci, it is at the individual level where change occurs.

“The first objective for me is to help people realize that in the move towards ‘zero-waste’ lifestyles, in terms of plastic and our everyday consumption, it usually does not imply electronic equipment,” believes Balci.

According to her, if our objective is a ‘zero-waste’ society, we need to think about our electronics and digital tools as a key part of our own health, and the health of our planet.

By Theadora Mills, @theadoramills

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An artist’s illumination on the health impacts of e-waste

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