E-Waste Spreads Toxic Trash Throughout Developing World

Obsolete electronics cause environmental problems in poor nations.

by / June 22, 2008

If there's one upheaval that's had the biggest global impact over the past two decades, it's the technology revolution. Driven by more efficient, smaller and cheaper microchips, technology has wowed the world and changed everyone's lives. But a dangerous new waste stream, electronic waste, is growing alongside the proliferation of electronic products.

Environmentalists say that besides global warming, electronic waste, or "e-waste," is the most threatening environmental problem in the world today. Mounting global sales of electrical and electronic products are generating an equally imposing amount of toxic waste that's too complicated to process.

Although the exact amount is unknown, the United Nations estimates roughly 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, constituting more than 5 percent of all municipal solid waste. Alarmingly an estimated 70 percent of e-waste is illegally dumped or crudely processed in poorer Asian and African countries, where workers in e-waste scrap yards are constantly exposed to toxic chemical byproducts of deconstructing components. These chemicals also pollute water, soil and air.

Poorer countries in Asia, such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines and some impoverished regions in China, have become dumping grounds for e-waste. What's even more startling is rich countries, such as the United States, Canada and some European Union (EU) countries - the world's largest e-waste generators - have adopted only small or halfhearted measures to deal with this looming problem. Critics say the United States and Canada have taken woefully inadequate steps to stop e-waste dumping in developing and poor countries where import laws are full of loopholes. While other developed countries in the EU and Japan impose restrictions on e-waste exports and mandate that manufacturers take back their end-of-life products, critics claim there's no monitoring or enforcement of those rules.

"The issue of exporting [hazardous e-waste by] countries like the USA and Canada has not been resolved yet," said Ibrahim Shafii, scientific and technical program officer for the Secretariat of the Basel Convention, the most comprehensive global-environmental agreement on hazardous wastes. The convention controls transboundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal.

"The USA and Canada are still exporting computer waste to other developing countries because under the laws of these countries, discarded computers and mobile phones are not considered as wastes and therefore they are not controlled," said Shafii.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), which seeks to ensure Basel Convention norms are followed, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition are two U.S.-based environmental organizations that have been trumpeting the e-waste problem in reports such as Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, published in 2002. "Rather than having to face the problem squarely," the report stated, "the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the e-waste have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve - exporting the e-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia."

Indeed, to get a sense of the magnitude of the high-tech revolution's dirty little secret, all you need to do is peek in the narrow lanes of east Delhi, or visit districts in Guiyu, Nanyang and Taizhou in China, or the Sher Khan Market in Karachi, Pakistan. Small boys, young women and even grown men can be found tearing apart personal computers, monitors and other electronic hardware with their bare hands and sifting through the components. The reusable parts are separated out for use in refurbished electronics products, and the rest is sorted to extract glass from the cathode-ray tubes, and valuable gold and silver traces.

The remaining waste is broken down and incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids that spew foul smoke. Whatever can't be incinerated is broken down, hammered and dumped in the nearest sewer or garbage bin. From there, it goes to landfills. For doing this

dirty work, adult male laborers are paid at most $3 a day in U.S. currency, and wages are even lower for women and children.

Defining the Problem
Several countries have formulated their own interpretation and usage of the term "e-waste." However, per the Basel Convention's definition - the most widely accepted - e-waste encompasses all discarded and disposed-of electrical and electronic assemblies, scrap, components and batteries; some of which may contain hazardous materials, such as cadmium, mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyl. Therefore, e-waste includes a broad range and growing number of electronic devices - from large household appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners, to personal products, like cellular phones, personal stereos, consumer electronics and computers.

The e-waste problem has turned into a crisis primarily for two reasons. First, e-waste contains more than 1,000 different substances, many of which are toxic, so pollution is created upon its disposal. Second, e-waste is being generated at an alarming rate due to technology's constant revolution, which has driven the sale of new products and the rapid obsolescence of electronics. For instance, according to a Greenpeace International study published in February, the number of mobile phone users worldwide will reach 2 billion this year, and at least 150 million new mobile phones will be sold in China alone. Sales of other gadgets - personal computers, TVs, monitors and console game platforms - are growing internationally from 10 percent to 400 percent annually.

The Greenpeace study predicts the world's already huge e-waste stream will continue to increase. The report estimates that by 2010 both industrialized and developing countries will triple their e-waste generation. That's a serious problem. An even bigger problem could be that the world's most-developed countries funnel the materials to less-developed nations. "Rich countries often legally or illegally will divert this problem from their own backyards, which will result in a hidden flow of e-waste causing environmental damage in the backyards and scrap yards of poorer countries," according to the Greenpeace report, Toxic Tech: Not in Our Backyard.

This "hidden flow" of e-waste escapes collection, reuse and recycling systems, and it's the unaccounted e-waste that ends up causing the most environmental damage.

While e-waste generated by the EU's 27 member countries is an estimated 8.7 million tons a year, the amount collected and treated is estimated to be 2.1 million tons - just 25 percent. The leftover 75 percent is a "hidden flow," and there isn't precise data available about what happens to this waste - whether it's stored or disposed of in Europe, or exported to Asian countries and Africa.

According to Greenpeace, it's likely that part of the 25 percent of the EU's e-waste that is collected and treated is also exported, although it's impossible to quantify exact numbers. It's also noteworthy that exports are taking place despite EU legislation that bans exports of hazardous waste to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, and in spite of the Basel ban ratification on the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less-developed countries by EU member states.

America's Hidden Flow
The U.S.'s situation is quite different: America is a large consumer market with a big appetite for electrical and electronic appliances. The U.S. infrastructure for the collection and recycling of e-waste, however, is relatively unsophisticated. The U.S.'s generation of e-waste is just 2 million tons per year as estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2007. Greenpeace officials say that number is low because the EPA survey doesn't account for household electrical and electronic appliances and gadgets, such as washing machines, TVs, etc.

In addition, the hidden flow of U.S. e-waste is larger. Less than 20 percent of the e-waste is separated from other waste streams for further processing and recovery, while the remaining 80 percent is incinerated, sent to landfills,

put into storage and reuse or exported.

For newly industrialized countries, such as China and India, with large, informal recycling sectors - and even in industrialized nations like Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia and Africa - it isn't even possible to estimate the hidden flow of e-waste. "In these countries, collection rates are determined by the informal recycling sector, where the focus is on the recovery (albeit inefficient reclamation) of valuable raw materials, and not on the health and environmental hazards inherent in e-waste, resulting in environmental pollution and exposure of workers to hazardous substances from the recycling of e-waste," according to the Greenpeace report.

In fact, experts say the poorer countries' primitive treatment methods are another big driver for the illegal and hidden flow of e-waste. Since crude forms of recycling drastically cut the cost of treating or disposing of e-waste, it often makes sense to "push the e-waste out of destinations where costs are high, to low-cost countries where there are no set norms for processing or importing of e-waste," said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, a nonprofit environmental group based in India.

Toxics Link estimates that while it costs about $50 to recycle a personal computer in the United States, unscrupulous Indian importers pay no more than $15 apiece, which translates to a net gain of $35 for a U.S. recycler. By extracting the usable parts and then dumping it on the backyard scrap-trading outfits, an importer in India can generate about $10 per piece in profits. "It's win-win for both," said Agarwal.

This is perhaps why advocates of ethical disposal, such as Greenpeace and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, feel electronics manufacturers should take on the financial burden and management responsibility for their products when they reach the end-of-life phase. "The producers' responsibility theory has a two-pronged benefit," said Martin Hojsik, Greenpeace's e-waste expert. First, incorporating the waste management cost into the product price motivates producers to improve their products' environmental design and increases their shelf life. "Instead of designing a TV or PC that lasts for just three years, perhaps the producer could design a PC that could last twice as long," he said.

Second, it could force producers to "clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances, replacing harmful ingredients through use of safer alternatives or design changes," said Hojsik. For example, Apple Inc., reports its recycling rate as a percentage of sales made seven years prior. In 2006, Apple recycled 9.5 percent of the weight of all products sold seven years earlier and has near-term goals to recycle even more: 13 percent in 2007, 20 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in 2010.  

Apple's commitment to recycle its products has also led to the new MacBook Air laptop that uses a recyclable aluminum enclosure instead of flame-retardant plastics. "The e-waste crisis then should not be regarded only as a waste- management issue but also a driver for product design," said Hojsik.

Nevertheless, although Greenpeace says the EU's e-waste directive makes each producer responsible for its own-branded, discarded products that have been brought to market since August 2005, a key problem that arises is "it's hard to ensure to what extent the own-branded, end-of-life products are actually controlled by the producers," said Hojsik.

In several non-EU countries, including Taiwan, Japan, Australia and Korea, some manufacturers voluntarily take responsibility for the end-of-life phase of their products but often, such efforts are temporary and isolated. That's particularly true in the United States and Canada, even though they are the world's largest generators of e-waste.

Manufacturers' Responsibility?
Producers taking responsibility for their end-of-life products have been found predominantly in those countries where it's required by legal frameworks (such as the EU) or where public awareness is high, according to Greenpeace.  

The Basel Convention Secretariat's Shafii said a lack of regulation and awareness is

a problem in North America. "Unfortunately in the U.S. and Canada, there is a general lack of laws and regulations to control the export of e-waste, and there aren't norms to determine whether a shipment is hazardous e-waste or not," he said.

Although at least four states have passed e-waste recycling laws, and a dozen more have producer take-back bills pending, the United States still doesn't have a clear definition of e-waste. According to the EPA, electronic products that are "near" or at "the end of their useful life" are classified as e-waste or "e-scrap." Recyclers prefer the term "e-scrap" since "waste" refers only to what is left after the product has been reused, recovered or recycled. Moreover, "the U.S. government's policies - by refusing to ratify the Basel Convention - also appear to be designed to promote sweeping the e-waste problem out the Asian backdoor," according to BAN.

Therefore, while California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) officials who work on the state's e-waste recycling program say it's hard to devise a perfect model for global management of e-waste, the federal government could play a significant role. "That's because the states can have their own laws, but they cannot impose restrictions on exports. It is something that only the federal government can do," said Jeff Hunt, manager with the Electronic Waste Recycling Program of the CIWMB.

In February, several congressional offices floated a concept paper laying out a possible framework for a federal model. "Though at this point it's just a concept, efforts to create national-level legislation have been started," said Hunt.

The federal government's concept paper tries to fix a national electronic recycling system that makes reusing and recycling services readily available to consumers. Among other goals, the paper addresses global-market issues that can be uniquely addressed at the national level: providing a level playing field that deters interstate dumping of scrap products and "sham" recycling; accelerated adoption of clean-product standards; protection of consumers' and recyclers' health and safety; protection of the environment; and assurance that exports are managed responsibly.

If the European experience holds true in North America, however, legislation may not fully solve the problem without better public awareness. Every community and all levels of government can take more responsibility in promoting awareness of the e-waste problem.

There are tremendous benefits to being a member of a digital community. But the resultant success should not come at the expense of environmental devastation and poisoning of other poor, overseas communities.

Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.