E-wasting Away

by Liz Borkowski 

Parties to the Basel Convention—the international treaty dealing with the transport and disposal of hazardous wastes—are meeting this week in Nairobi, and e-waste is on their agenda. Each year, consumers generate 20 – 50 million tons of e-waste (waste from electrical and electronic equipment), and it’s full of hazardous substances: heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and chromium, and flame retardants such as polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs).

Much of the e-waste ends up in developing countries, where its toxic components endanger workers and the environment. In a 2003 Washington Post article, Peter S. Goodman offered a disturbing portrait of its effects:

In towns along China’s coast as well as in India and Pakistan, adults and children work for about $ 1.20 a day in unregulated and unsafe conditions. As rivers and soils absorb a mounting influx of carcinogens and other toxins, people are suffering high incidences of birth defects, infant mortality, tuberculosis and blood diseases, as well as particularly severe respiratory problems, according to recent reports by the state-controlled Guangdong Radio and the Beijing Youth newspaper.

[…]

On a recent morning in Guiyu, in Guangdong province, hundreds of men squatted in concrete-block sheds, sifting through computers and printers and breaking them into scrap with their bare hands. Some inhaled black clouds of toner. A tractor carted a mass of wires to an alley, where women melted them in barrels to scavenge their copper before spilling the leftovers into the dead-black Lianjiang River.

In a low building tucked at the bottom of a hill, a middle-aged woman leaned over a sheet of steel placed atop a charcoal fire, melting down capacitors pried from computers to harvest tiny amounts of gold. Ten feet away, a girl no older than 11 bent over a table, sorting through more circuitry.

[…]

Nearly every crevice of the town showed evidence of the trade, from the strips of plastic and shards of glass choking the river to the piles of motherboards, hard drives and keyboards in front of nearly every home. The landscape was poisonous. Glass from monitors contains lead, which afflicts the nervous system and harms children’s brains. Batteries and switches contain mercury, which damages organs and fetuses. Motherboards contain beryllium, the inhalation of which can cause cancer.

Since China banned the importation of many types of discarded electronic goods in 2002, Woodman reported, many of the shipments were re-routed through Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines and shipped to smaller ports where customs officials could be bribed to allow it in.

According to UNEP’s Environmental Alert Bulletin on e-waste (PDF), more than 500 million computers were slated to become obsolete in the US between 1997 and 2005. Since the US hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, recyclers here aren’t barred from shipping hazardous waste to other countries, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (PDF)cites industry sources estimating that 50 – 80% of e-wastes collected for recycling go directly onto ships bound for China and other such destinations.

Toxic Charity
UNEP notes that 1.38 million of the 5 million PCs in India are more than 8 years old. Computers too old or slow for consumer expectations in wealthy countries often end up in poorer nations, and this reuse can be a good way to lengthen products’ lifespans and provide digital access to those who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Even when these benefits are realized, though, the poor countries are left with the burden of disposing of defunct machines that served their best years elsewhere.

The Basel Action Network’s documentary “The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa” reports that many recipients of our castoff computers get the liabilities without the benefits. An estimated 500 containers of used computer scraps arrive in Lagos, Nigeria each month, but as much as 75% is not economically reparable or resalable. Most of it is burned or dumped, contaminating local air and water.

As UNEP explains, some companies in industrialized countries illegally export e-waste because it’s more cost-effective to dispose of the waste in developing countries with low labor costs and lax or poorly enforced environmental regulations. The illegal export is sometimes disguised as charity or recycling.

Solutions
As one step toward addressing these problems, electronic product manufacturers could use less-toxic materials. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, which makes manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, can encourage the use of more benign components and improved recycleability.

BAN suggests (PDF) that whenever castoff electronics require the replacement of hazardous parts during repair or refurbishment, then their export must fall under Basel control procedures. This would make it harder for e-waste dumpers to conduct their activities under the guise of re-use.

The Basel Convention has three e-waste programs in progress already (PDF): a public-private partnership dealing with mobile phones, a Global Computer Refurbishment and Recycling Partnership aimed at engaging manufacturers, and a regional project on e-waste in the Asia-Pacific region. I’ll be interested to see what the outcomes of this week’s meetings are.

And, if you’ve got an old computer taking up space in your closet, SVTC has a “Consumer’s Guide to Electronics Recycling” for US residents.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP).

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