|September 08, 2014|
Where gadgets go to die
|A growing mountain of electronic waste needs to be disposed of responsibly by rich nations rather than shipped to poorer countries to do the dirty work.|
WHAT to do with old computers, monitors, keyboards, printers, phones and other digital paraphernalia? On no account should anything containing a printed circuit board be put in the rubbish bin for municipal collection. Not counting all the other toxic materials used in electronic products, the lead in the soldered joints alone requires such items to be recycled professionally.
According to a United Nations initiative known as StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem), electronic waste can contain up to 60 elements from the periodic table, as well as flame retardants and other nasty chemicals. Apart from heavy metals such as lead and mercury, there are quantities of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and polyvinyl chloride to be found. All of these pose hazards to the health of those handling them.
When burned at low temperature, the brominated flame retardants used in circuit boards and casings create additional toxins, including halogenated dioxins and furans---some of the most toxic substances known. These can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption and numerous other health problems. Meanwhile, the heavy metals released by incineration can accumulate in the food chain (especially in fish) and come back to haunt future generations.
The trouble is that, even with respectable collection centres, there is no guarantee that e-waste will be processed responsibly downstream. What little is known about recycling hazardous waste in America, for instance, suggests that only 15-20% is actually recycled; the rest gets incinerated or buried in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There is no evidence to suggest other countries are any better.
With few audits undertaken, even the EPA has to rely on assumptions and guesswork. Most observers agree that only 20% or so of the 9m tonnes of e-waste collected each year in America is processed domestically---either by reputable firms under controlled conditions, or by prison inmates with few, if any, handling requirements. In other words, the bulk of the waste---up to 80% by weight---gets exported to places in Asia and Africa where health and safety regulations are less onerous.
Such exports are banned in Europe, but remain legal in America. The United States is the only developed country that has refused to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty controlling the export of hazardous waste from wealthy countries to poorer ones. America has also refused, along with Canada and Japan, to accept the Basel Convention's 1995 amendment that imposes an outright ban on such trade.
Not that the Europeans behave any more ethically. Inspections of 18 seaports in the continent in 2005 found nearly half the e-waste destined for export was actually illegal. Shippers use various dodges to circumvent the Basel ban. For instance, waste labelled as goods for refurbishing or reuse can pass muster. It would be nice to think that scrapped electronic products are repaired and put back into productive use, but that is often not the case.
The Chinese city of Guiyu in Guangdong province is the e-waste capital of the world. Though container loads are still shipped there from American, European and Japanese ports, the bulk of the e-waste being processed in China nowadays is domestically produced. Guiyu is reckoned to employ 150,000 people, including large numbers of children, disassembling old computers, phones and other electronic devices by hand. Circuit boards are soaked in acid to dissolve out the lead, cadmium and other metals. Plastic cases are ground into pellets, and copper wiring is stripped of its plastic coating. With costs so low, there is a ready market for most of the materials recovered.
Yet there is a price to pay for all this activity. Air pollution and contamination of the water supply in Guiyu are said to be horrendous. A medical researcher from nearby Shantou University found concentrations of lead in the blood of local children to be on average 49% over the maximum safe level. The highest concentrations were found in children living in homes that contained workshops for recycling circuit boards on the premises.
India is another big processor of e-waste. All told, some 25,000 workers in Delhi alone are estimated to be employed recycling up to 20,000 tonnes annually of computers, phones and other hardware. The preferred method for recycling circuit boards in India is to toss them into an open fire---to melt the plastics and burn away everything but the gold and copper.
With the mountain of e-waste growing at 8% a year, the 20m-50m tonnes the EPA reckoned was produced globally in 2009 could easily reach 100m tonnes by 2020. What can be done to reduce the impact? Probably, not much at present. Recycling in an environmentally sound manner is expensive. For wealthier countries it remains much cheaper to ship unwanted electronic goods to poorer parts of the planet.
Dismantling at home
The cost of recycling e-waste in America would, of course, come down significantly if firms doing the work had a greater volume of electronic trash to deal with. That would also spur innovative new methods of processing the material. But such a change would require stiff penalties to be imposed on the export of e-waste, or at least getting manufacturers to include a fee in the price of electronic goods to offset the cost of taking them back for reprocessing.
In the meantime, people can do their own dirty work by taking the old television set, obsolete computer or broken refrigerator to a recycler who is an accredited member of one of the two voluntary certification schemes: E-Stewards and Responsible Recycling Practices. An interactive map giving details of certified recyclers is on the EPA's website. In Europe the number of recyclers accredited by E-Stewards is increasing steadily. The Basel Action Network, an environmental pressure group, also lists recyclers. Owning an electronic device now comes with a responsibility for its afterlife.