Guest Blog by: Craig Dsouza
Craig Dsouza just graduted from the University of Delaware with a Masters degree in Environmental Policy. Read his blog ‘People and the Planet: The Spotlight on India’ here. On 20-something environmentalist, Craig writes about a common environmental issue in his native country: e-waste in India.
A worn out old personal computer, the last of the 20th century, smudged gray with dirt of the years sits on a pile of similarly broken down devices in Guiyu, China. This gadget, once “magical” to the eyes of its owners, now finds itself awaiting its last days as a modern technological marvel. It won’t be long before its constituents are broken down rather crudely and go their separate ways.
The shell of plastic is pulled apart to get at the circuit board within. Therein lays the gold, literally gold, 220mg of it winding in and out of threads of other precious metals such as silver (Ag), Palladium (Pd). Quantities of these materials are seldom worth the effort to separate them, especially when a blowtorch is the worker’s best tool. Copper and steel from the PC however are extracted and set aside for later resale. Some mass of toxic heavy metals including lead, mercury, PCBs and other toxic chemicals enter into the air or leach into the bare ground below the wage laborer who sets apart her finds carefully in a sorted pile. She then moves on to the next machine and repeats the process. Later plastic is set aside for recycling. Unrecoverable junk from the rest of the heap is dumped out in the open.
The threat posed by such toxics to the health of workers and the environment is real. The lure of better wages however, has won out over the threat of ill health. Crackdowns on the illegal imports of e-waste into China ramped up in the wake of a 60 Minutes piece in 2008, which highlighted the prevalence of transboundary waste transfers from the U.S. to China. This cut down but did not eliminate imports completely. What will it take to achieve this?
What Comprises E-waste?
E-waste is comprised of discarded parts of any of a number of electrical devices we use in our daily lives. This includes television sets, computers, refrigerators, mobiles devices, air-conditioners, batteries and many more. Discarded devices can be repaired and put up for resale or broken up into its constituents, metals and plastic which are resold as primary commodities. The cost of repair and resale value dictates which alternative is picked. Some of the constituents of e-waste cannot be reused and must be disposed away safely.
Where is E-Waste Produced?
The world produces an estimated 40 million tons of e-waste each year, the U.S. leading the pack with 3 million tons followed by China at 2.3 million tons. This is set to change in the next few years with developing countries projected to leap ahead by 2016. This is cause for further worry with poor safeguards in the recycling process being a staple in developing countries.
Where does E-Waste End Up?
70% of the world’s e-waste finds its way to China where cheap labor and poor law enforcement allow for waste imports. Large quantities of e-waste are also taken to India, Pakistan and Nigeria. This happens despite the presence of laws on either end prohibiting the trans-border transport of e-waste, through loopholes that allow for the transport of ‘used’ or ‘second hand’ electronics in an operating condition.
What is the Harm Anyway: Dangers Posed by E-Waste
In the unsophisticated waste recycling process in developing nations, smelting of plastics produces dioxins which are among the most toxic chemicals on earth. Ash laden residues with heavy metals contaminate the soil and water bodies. Children living in the vicinity of e-waste processing operations were found to have blood with dangerously high lead levels. Brain damage, kidney disease, mutations and cancer are among the other noted risks of unprotected waste handling.
Besides the health benefits to safe recycling there are also environmental benefits. The recycling of e-waste conserves large amounts of precious metals that can be reused thus alleviating the great strain that is placed on the environment for resources.
The recycling of metals results in significant energy savings ranging and CO2 savings as well. CFCs and HCFCs which are now banned still remain in older refrigeration devices and must be disposed of properly. E-recycling also has the potential to create thousands of local jobs.
What can you do?
- Find your local e-cycler on State Waste Mgmt or Earth 911
- Push for stronger e-waste legislation
Recycling alone isn’t enough for more than 50% of e-waste collected for recycling is exported anyway. (Electronics Take Back Coalition, 2013)
- Research the federal e-waste bill text and highlights.
- Producer Stewardship
The idea that the producer should be responsible for the end of life of a product is quickly gaining hold, lend your support here.
- Greener Electronics
See Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics
For questions about any of the facts listed in this post, or for further reading, please contact Craig Dsouza at firstname.lastname@example.org.