Toxic "E-Waste" Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
November 8, 2005
Reduce, reuse, recycle. This familiar environmentalist slogan outlines
an approach to minimizing how much trash ends up in landfills,
incinerators, and waterways.

The concept is being employed to cope with one potentially hazardous form of waste—electronic junk such as old computers, cell phones, and televisions.

But the process for managing this so-called e-waste may get coopted for unscrupulous purposes more often than it's legitimately used, a recent report suggests.

"A lot of these materials are being sent [to developing nations] under the guise of reuse—to bridge the digital divide," said Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst for the Seattle, Washington-based Basel Action Network.

Last month the activist organization issued a report titled "The Digital Dump." The paper concludes that three-quarters of the supposedly reusable electronics shipped to Africa's largest port are broken.

One of the problems is that no one certifies whether donated machines work before they hit the seaways. Because of this, the report says, e-waste is a growing problem in Lagos, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the developing world.

Much of the waste ends up being discarded along rivers and roads. Often it's picked apart by destitute scavengers, who may face dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals in the broken equipment.

Traders in places like Lagos are willing to receive this cast-off junk, though many of their governments officially forbid it, Gutierrez said.

The importers sell the working machines. Then they pay workers a pittance to burn the plastic casings and wire insulation in broken machines and strip out sought-after materials such as gold and copper.

The low-tech recovery process could expose workers and the local environment to lead, cadmium, mercury, and other hazardous materials used to build electronics. Workers can also be exposed to carcinogenic compounds called dioxins that are byproducts of incinerated plastics.

"Green Passport"

According to Gutierrez, this shadow economy exists because the guise of recycling and reusing electronics gives dealers "a green passport" to ship waste around the globe. Most of the waste comes from developed nations that should know better, he said.

"Forty-five percent of the junk that's coming in [to Lagos] is coming from the United States," he said. "Another 45 percent comes from Europe, and the other 10 percent from Japan and Israel."

The European Union, Israel, Japan, and the United States have signed the Basel Convention, which forbids countries from exporting hazardous waste, including electronics.

"There is some responsibility that the developing nations must take upon themselves," Gutierrez said. But, he added, "a greater element of this responsibility should fall on the exporting state."

China, for example, has become a cache for vast amounts of e-waste. The nation is beginning to take action to stem the flow of hazardous material across its borders.

"The Chinese government, after many years of denial, is finally beginning to take the helm," said Ted Smith, founder and senior strategist of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Gutierrez noted that even if China enforces its existing laws and keeps e-waste out, "it will flow to the next country with lax environmental standards." E-waste, he said, "follows the path of least economic resistance."

"That's why we need to regulate this at the source end," Smith agreed. Laws should prevent e-waste exportation and require manufacturers to shoulder the responsibility of recycling their products in the most cost-effective manner, he said.

Such a shift would make electronics more expensive in the short term, he acknowledged, but environmental damage and health hazards would be minimized.

Gutierrez added that as many toxic compounds as possible should be banned from new electronics. Europe has already banned lead, cadmium, and a half dozen other materials still permitted in U.S. products.

Problems Ahead

Gordon Davy, an engineer with technology firm Northrop Grumman in Baltimore, Maryland, said such regulation would be coercive.

Consumers in developed countries would have to pay more for new electronics, and poor laborers elsewhere would lose the income they now get from stripping apart dead electronics.

Davy also questions whether e-waste is harming people.

"Pollution in the third world is clearly deplorable," he said. "But as far as health consequences [of e-waste is concerned], the environmental activists need to provide supporting evidence. They need to identify and count their victims."

Gutierrez countered, "We're dealing with toxic substances that have been studied to death. We need not come up with further studies. It would be an overanalysis of an obvious problem."

"The e-waste crisis is relatively young," he said. "The problems [that people] are being exposed to will germinate for years." By the time chronic diseases such as cancer arise, it will be too late to avert a public-health disaster, he said.

Smith, of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, concurred. "Right now [e-waste] doesn't seem to be causing any enormous environmental hazards. But over the next several generations it's going to create a problem."

University of Maryland student Haibing Ma is planning ahead. The graduate student from China aims to develop a framework that could help his homeland deal with its e-waste problem.

While working toward a solution, Ma is loath to add to the problem, so he purchased his computers from Hewlett Packard.

That manufacturer is one of several that have announced so-called takeback policies, promising to safely dispose of obsolete equipment returned by consumers.

"I mailed one monitor back to HP last semester," Ma said. "But the [shipping] charge … we pay ourselves."

With other electronics, manufacturers provide no such choice.

"The television is the problem," Ma said. "We have so many different producers, and none of them have a clear takeback policy."

When his TV dies, Ma says, he'll put it in the waste bin. "We don't know where it will go."

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