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Global e-waste dumping – Are you a contributor? Where does your waste end-up?

Waste of the west – poisons for children of the east

E-waste dumping in Ghana. Photo by Basel Action Network. Copyright BAN 2009
What do you want to happen to your electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)? The many descriptions or titles given to this form of waste all mean the same thing... (IT equipment & computers, CRT monitors, Flat screen monitors, MP3s, Mobile phones, Washing machines and many other household appliances. But when disposed of at a recycling center, collected by a local recycler, are you concerned where they go or what happens to them? Well you should be!.

No matter what the terminology for recycling drop-off point are around the world, e-waste collection event, recycling center, buy-back center, etc. we all have a Duty of care to ensure that the waste is to be properly taken care of until treated by a reputable and authorised processor or treatment facility. Duty of Care applies to anyone who produces, imports, transports, stores, treats or disposes of controlled waste from business or industry. This means you have a duty to ensure that any waste you produce is handled safely and within the law and current waste regulations.

We all want to believe that the recycler is going to do the right thing: to reuse them if possible, and handle them in ways that are safe for workers and the environment. But this sadly is not always the case.
You can help by ensuring that you only pass your waste to recyclers who carry a Waste Carriers Licence issued by Environment Agency or equivilent permit for your country.

Don't pass your waste to:

  • Companies that stockpile e-waste in the open, especially CRTs, where rainwater is able to access and errode the circuit boards, releasing poisons into the drainage systems.

  • Anybody who does not have the correct licences for the waste they are going to carry.

  • Anybody who refuses to give you paperwork supplying their ID and the ID of their vehicle.

Electronics contain many toxic chemicals, and so a responsible recycler is one that is making sure that he or she is passing hazardous waste to someone who is managing all aspects of the recycling as safely as possible.

E-waste sold to exporters is becoming more of a problem, since e-waste contains poisons, yet because of its valuable metal content, gold, silver, platinum, lead, copper, some unscrupulous exporters ship the waste for illegal processing in countries like Africa or China where poor levels of pay and very weak labour standards induce an 'acceptable risk' attitude from the workers. Little do these people realise the dangers that they expose themselves to.

In 2001, the Basel Action Network (BAN) led several groups in an investigation of e-waste processing in China, India, and Pakistan. The investigation uncovered an entire area known as Guiyu in Guangdong Province, surrounding the Lianjiang River just 4 hours drive northeast of Hong Kong where about 100,000 poor migrant workers are employed breaking apart and processing obsolete computers imported primarily from North America. The workers were found to be using 19th century technologies to clean up the wastes from the 21st century.

Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa
The problematic e-waste dumping is caused by the unrestricted processing of electronic waste in these back-yard processing areas. Dealing with waste in this manner is hazardous to say the least and more often than not leads to serious health and pollution problems.

CRTs and circuit boards contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, chromium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants from which toxic fumes are released during the burning of the waste. The discarded reminants release toxins into the ground and river systems, contaminating drinking water and food supplies, meaning that women and children are often directly exposed to lead. Lead poisoning affects many parts of the body, including the brain, nerves, kidneys, liver, blood, digestive tract, and sex organs. Loss of sex drive, infertility, decreased sperm count and erectile dysfunction (impotence) are also results of the poisoning from lead. Children are particularly susceptible because lead causes the most damage in nervous systems that are still developing.

Research shows that:

  • High chromium exposure leads to DNA damage in infants. Low birth weights, premature deliveries and impacts on the children’s growth rates have all been attributed to links with chromium poisoning.

  • PBDEs (chemicals in flame retardants) have been associated with learning dificulties and memory problems, decreased sperm quality, cancer, thyroid effects.

The crude methods used to take TVs apart, just to get at the metals they contain causes these people, the environment, and the animals great harm in the process. These dangerous practices include:

  • Smashing open CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes) with hammers and bricks, freeing the toxic phosphor dust and lead inside.

  • Cooking circuit boards in woks over open fires to melt the lead solder, breathing in toxic lead fumes and releasing these poisonous fumes into the open air.

  • Burning piles of cable to remove the plastics to access the valuable copper inside.

  • Burning the plastic casings, creating dioxins and furans – some of the most poisonous fumes you can breathe.

  • Poisoning rivers and streams by throwing the unwanted (but very hazardous) CRT leaded glass into former irrigation ditches.

  • Dumping pure acids and dissolved heavy metals directly into their rivers.

In 2007 a report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the world’s highest levels of dioxins, environmental pollutants that threaten human health, were been recorded in Guiyu. These dioxins are released into the air as a result of burning plastics and circuit boards coated with flame retardants to extract gold, platinum, copper and other metals.