by Victoria Stirling
Tragedies causing sickness, death and the poisoning of the environment in countries far away from us are devastating many Third World Asian countries today, and I am not talking about AIDS. No, this is a problem directly caused by the West and the entire developed world, and once we learn the horror we’re responsible for, we must make the right choice and fix these situations.
I first became aware that the Western world is shamelessly dumping its problems on those less fortunate when I read an article by Mari-Len De Guzman in a 2005 issue of Computer World Canada. It detailed the unconscionable disposal methods that some in the Western world employ today to get rid of electronic litter.
Guzman revealed that piles of old computers are being dismantled in many Asian countries, with no regard for the lethal substances inside them. The toxic materials released from these items are now flowing into both the atmosphere and water. The pollution is so great in some areas that in just five years the rivers, that provides these people with their drinking water, have become streams of black poison.
The recycling in Asia is being done by the poor, who often use their children to help. None of them uses even a minimum of protective clothing or face masks. Research shows that exposure to high levels of cadmium and mercury; both by-products of electronic waste, has adverse effects on humans and wildlife alike.
Groups of concerned citizens like Greenpeace and BAN (The Basel Action Network) are working hard to prohibit the exporting of e-waste to Third World countries. An international treaty signed by 134 countries makes it illegal to export e-waste to countries but it’s not enough. As Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network points out, “It is creating the largest waste problem in the world right now."
The latest estimates project that due to the shortened lifespan of computers, by the year 2010 there will be more than 700 million new PCs in use around the world.
My concern about all this led me to talk with a London, Ontario, City Hall environmental officer, Wes Abbot. I was pleased to learn from him that my city has a special disposal site for all electronic waste, and that the company that finally disposes of this material guarantees the city a that “none of it goes overseas.” Everything is either shredded or smelted here in Ontario.
Canada is not doing badly on this issue: On its own, one IT vendor in Canada has committed to doing something about this problem: HP Canada has partnered with Noranda Recycling to render electrical waste by smelting and recovering the elements present in computers.The Computer World Canada article was concerned only with computer waste, but the problem includes all electronic products. As the BBC noted in 2001, “There is an EU directive requiring manufacturers to collect and recycle their products. The waste electrical and electronic equipment directive aims to cut the millions of tonnes of electrical junk - from televisions and fridges to computers and video recorders - that Europe produces each year.” The sorry list now also includes old cell or mobile phones, as they are called in the United Kingdom.
At that point, Oxfam was appealing for donations of old “mobiles” to raise money for charitable causes, since each phone was potentially worth a great deal in the right place. The BBC reported on the solution being adopted: “Many of the abandoned mobiles are exported to African countries with poor landline infrastructure,” says Mark Harrison of Isis Telecommunications, Oxfam's partner. A Nokia 5110, for instance, pays for 24 school desks for children in Kenya.
For security reasons, Isis staff wiped out any stored numbers from donated phones, also removing and destroying the SIM cards if the donor forgot or didn’t know enough to take it out. Whenever necessary, Isis stopped to refit and repair damaged phones before sending them on.
However, Mr. Harrison was well aware of the problems inherent in recycling any electronic product. He says, “Those that are well and truly obsolete are stripped for parts and disposed of safely, to prevent the batteries leaking cadmium - a dangerous toxic substance - into the soil. You can't just throw old phones in the bin because of the environmental impact."
In 2002, in a BBC article entitled, “Computer dumping 'polluting Asia'”, it summarized a report, called ‘Exporting Harm: The Hi-Tech Trashing Of Asia.’ The BBC said, it “details a group of villages in south-eastern China where computers from America are picked apart and strewn along rivers and fields.” It continued:
The campaigners visited the waste sites in Guiyu, China, in December where people were smashing up machines to scavenge for the precious metals inside.
The report says that workers, with little or no protection against hazardous materials, burned plastics and circuit boards or poured acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold.
The effect was to fill the air with carcinogenic smoke and pollute the water, said the report.
The campaigners said preliminary investigations in both Pakistan and India had revealed that these countries were also receiving and processing waste electronics from the West.
The report noted the US was making its own contributions to the problem:
While there are recycling programmes in the US, campaigners say much of the waste electronics finds it way to the developing world.
The report suggested that as much as 80% of the America's electronic waste collected to be recycled is shipped out of the country.
"Everybody knows this is going on, but they are just embarrassed and don't really know what to do about it," said Ted Smith, head of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which also helped prepare the new report.
That was in 2002. In 2004, California began to address the problem, when then-Governor Gray Davis imposed a fee designed to help eliminate the growing toxic junk-heap. As of then, Californians had to pay $6 to $10 more when they bought new televisions or computers, to offset the cost of recycling discarded electronics equipment. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) containing high concentrations of lead, had already been banned from state landfills as of 2001 for fear of contaminating ground water.
By 2004, not only California, but also Massachusetts, and Minnesota had outlawed the disposal of computer waste in landfills; in 2003, 23 states initiated legislation to address the mounting problem of computer waste. However, few of those bills passed, and none were as far-reaching as California's new law. Almost all states have some form of recycling program, but their effectiveness varies widely.
By 2007, the US and most of Europe have the electronic waste problem under much better control, because there is now money to be made in this kind of recycling. In developed countries, the companies that now recycle some or all the parts involved are highly profitable.
The Ohio EPA Guide to Electronic Waste Disposal explains to the layman what can be recycled:
Virtually an entire computer can be recycled. From the glass in the monitor, to the plastic in the case, to the copper in the power supply, to the precious metals used in the circuitry. Companies are making new innovative products out of old computers. Many computers can be revitalized and sold to schools in economically challenged urban and rural areas. Some vocational schools use old computers to teach electronic repair and analysis techniques. Non-functioning computers may also have salvageable components such as modems or power supplies that could be used to refurbish other computers. One company is even turning old circuit boards from computers into novel products like clip-boards and notebooks. Not all companies are equally equipped to recycle all parts of a computer. Some companies, for example, may charge a handling fee for recycling monitors, but not those which specialize in monitor recycling.
To homeowners, it advises, “Your local solid waste management district may collect computers and electronics for recycling, or know of area recyclers who can take your old computer or other electronics.”Citizen groups like Computer Take Back have also become involved, advertising on the web, “Find out which computer companies will take back your old computer in our report and how the electronics companies measure up on recycling their E-Waste."
A similar site declares, “Computer and electronics recycling. Be environmentally responsible in San Francisco Bay. GreenCitizen is a great way to clean up electronics waste!"
But while we have improved our means of disposing of our outdated electronic junk and thus eased our consciences somewhat, the battle is not over. The poor are still absorbing and sorting through used electronic junk from abroad, thinking they have come upon a windfall. It has become a booming local industry in many small towns and villages formerly struggling to survive on subsistence farming. And slowly, those who thought they had found a gold mine will sicken and die premature deaths, as will their children. It is still happening in China and India, and now, with tighter regulations in Asia, more and more e-waste is ending up in Africa.
In November of 2006, the BBC wrote about the movement of the problem toward Africa in an article, “UN warning on e-waste 'mountain'” which quoted the head of the UN's Environment Programme (UNEP), who declared, “The world's richest nations are dumping hazardous electronic waste on poor African countries.” The article summarized the problem for Africa:
A recent study by the Basel Action Network concludes that a minimum of 100,000 computers a month are entering the Nigerian port of Lagos alone.
"If these were good quality, second hand, pieces of equipment this would perhaps be a positive trade of importance for development," said Mr Steiner.
"But local experts estimate that between a quarter to 75% of these items including old TVs, CPUs and phones are defunct - in other words e-waste."
When these are burnt, a common disposal method, it can release toxic fumes and leach chemicals such as barium and mercury into the soil.
In June 2007, a writer on the BBC Action Network published an article entitled, “Hazards of e-waste in Ghana.” The problem has also cropped up in Kenya. For details on the situation in Asia, an organization called id21, which reports on global issues published an informative piece entitled, “Time to tackle Asia’s electrical waste mountain.” Another evaluation, “Toxic Trade: The Real Cost of Electronics Waste Exports from the United States,” was published in 2006 by the Earth Trends portal of the World Resources Institute.
There seems to be no end to the number of spots on the globe we can find to store our toxic problems. What’s next? Antarctica?
Just remember: an average desktop PC with monitor, keyboard and printer weighs approximately 75 pounds; the cost to dismantle all this is about 45 cents a pound. I see that as a bargain: for less than $34.00, we can do something worthwhile with this trash!
Thoughtless disposal of e-waste is detrimental to all forms of life. It cannot continue unchecked. We only have one Earth! If it becomes a huge garbage dump, where will future generations live?
What is happening in these impoverished countries may occur out of my sight, but it will never be out of my mind. If you’ve never gotten involved in environmental issues before, I hope this information will prompt you into action. Now you can’t say, “I didn’t know.”
So, please, care for your Mother Earth. Get active, now!
About the Author
Victoria Stirling is a retired nurse, published freelance writer and the author of the book, “From the Other Side of the Bed.” She is also a lay-preacher for the United Church of Canada.
Born in Newbury, England, Victoria immigrated to Canada in 1966 with her husband Harvey and their two children. She enjoys spending time with her grandson and lives in London, Ontario.