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Toxic Tours - XVIII: One man's gadget is another man's poison

By Lisa Batiwalla

Even as a consumer in Europe opts for the latest design in mobile phones, somewhere in Asia a migrant worker is dismantling his discarded phone, risking exposure to hazardous chemicals. A report on e-waste

A consignment awaiting shipment off the docks in Felixstowe, in the United Kingdom , declares its contents to be plastic packaging. Upon inspection, however, customs officers find tonnes of broken computer monitors and other electronic waste, collected by a south Wales company, that’s being sent to Lahore to be dismantled by hand for its lead and other valuable, albeit toxic, contents. The illegal shipment of hazardous waste was blocked and returned.

The incident occurred in 2003, a year in which 23,000 tonnes of IT and electronic waste -- comprising tens of thousands of old computers, 500,000 television sets, 3 million refrigerators, 160,000 tonnes of electrical equipment and millions of discarded mobile phones -- was shipped from the United Kingdom out to China, west Africa and Pakistan. In fact, g oing by recent reports published by environmental agencies in India and the United Kingdom , India and China have become the destinations of choice for the shipment of electronic waste, particularly from Britain .

The reports suggest that in direct contravention of the international Basel Convention of 1992 (see box), thousands of tonnes of e-waste, some of it highly toxic, are being regularly shipped to the two countries to avoid the prohibitive cost of hazardous waste disposal in western countries.

According to one report, each year Britain generates upto 1 million tonnes of waste made up of broken computer monitors and discarded mobile phone sets, most of which finds its way illegally to Africa and Asia . The British government’s pollution watchdog, the Environment Agency, admits it has no idea how much of the waste, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, is being exported to poor countries by companies trying to avoid paying increasingly high disposal costs in the UK . And how much is only ‘technically illegal’ with companies not filling in the forms correctly. “It is not necessarily all illegal,” says an agency spokesman. “There is a legitimate international trade in goods with an overseas market for usable equipment such as computers and TVs. Further work will help us find out how much is illegal. Our investigations suggest some exporters are not seeking the appropriate legal authorisation.”

The Basel Convention

The Basel Convention, a global treaty initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme, was designed to address the uncontrolled movement and dumping of hazardous waste, including incidents of illegal dumping in developing nations by companies from developed countries. T rans-boundary movement of all kinds of hazardous waste must be defined and controlled or prohibited under the terms of the convention.

The convention stipulates that in order to minimise the threat of exposure to hazardous waste, it should be dealt with as close to where it is produced as possible.

Therefore, under the convention, trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, or other waste, can take place only after prior written notification by the state of export to the competent authorities of the states of import and transit (if appropriate).

Each shipment of hazardous waste, or other waste, must be accompanied by a movement document from the point at which a trans-boundary movement begins to the point of disposal. Hazardous waste shipments made without such documents are illegal.

 In addition, there are outright bans on the export of this waste to certain countries. Trans-boundary movement can take place, however, if the state of export does not have the capability of managing or disposing of the hazardous waste in an environmentally sound manner.


However, Kishore Wankhade of Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environment organization, says: “The trade is absolutely illegal and against the spirit of the Basel Convention.” Electronic waste contains several hazardous and toxic materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, antimony, PVC plastics and brominated flame-retardants. All are extremely dangerous to the environment and human health. More so if they disposed of improperly, a real possibility considering the fact that the Indian e-waste recycling system is a combination of several hazardous processes and is not technically or economically equipped to handle even in-house-generated electronic waste, says Wankhade.

In fact, two reports, not released by the Environment Agency but accessed by sections of the British media, suggest the problem is far greater than the government wants to admit. One, by the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER), is based on confidential interviews with businesses and concludes that most computer exports are certainly waste, because the goods are neither tested nor repaired before they are exported.

The other, by Impel, a grouping of environment agencies from six European countries including Britain, says that exporters are finding new ways of bypassing the rules, and that governments have neither the resources nor the will to give priority to checking what leaves the country. “Priorities for enforcement are low, and, as a consequence, little or no capacity is reserved for enforcement…Follow-up actions cannot be carried out. Enforcement of legislation is absolutely needed,” say the report’s authors.

Impel’s ongoing study of six major European ports, including Felixstowe, has found that 22% of all waste exports checked for more than a year were illegal. Enforcement agencies in the Netherlands , Germany , Britain , Poland and elsewhere found large quantities of computer equipment, electrical cables, cathode ray tubes, single-use cameras, old tyres, oil and contaminated motor parts being exported. In many instances, the authorities had to let shipments go, as they could not tell what equipment was reusable and what was obsolete.

Interestingly, many of the containers inspected, as in the Felixstowe example cited earlier, showed misleading information about their contents and their origin. The report suggests that scrap exporters are trying to confuse the authorities. One tactic, it notes, is to ‘port hop’ -- send waste from one European destination to another, leaving a trail of documents that are impossible to check. A shipment of British single-use cameras, complete with batteries, was sent to Germany where it was repacked twice before being shipped to China for ‘recycling’.

The scale of the trade and the damage this activity is doing to the health of port workers is gradually becoming clear. A major investigation by an international coalition of environmental groups earlier this year found huge quantities of e-waste being exported to China , Pakistan and India , where it was being reprocessed in operations extremely harmful to both human health and the environment. The groups, including the Basel Action Network (BAN), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Toxics Link India and Greenpeace, found e-waste mixed with scrap metal from Japan, South Korea, the US and the EU, and identified a town called Guiyu, some 200 miles northeast of Hong Kong in the coastal province of Guangdong, where upto 100,000 migrant labourers break up and reprocess obsolete computers from around the world.

The work involves men, women and children who are unaware of the health and environmental hazards of dismantling such goods -- a process that includes the open burning of plastics and wires, acid used to extract gold, the melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes. Already, Guiyu has become so polluted that the well water there is undrinkable; water has to be trucked in for the entire population, the report says.

“We found a cyber-age nightmare,” said Jim Puckett of BAN. “They call this recycling, but it’s really dumping by another name. Yet, to our horror, we discovered that rather than banning it, governments are actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste being generated.”

The groups have appealed to global manufacturers to take responsibility for their electronic products and phase out the dangerous substances found within them. “It is ironic that these electronic discards are being collected in industrialised countries for the purpose of dumping them in poor countries. Asia is the dustbin of the world’s hazardous waste,” says Von Hernandez of Greenpeace International.

Exports of e-waste are set to rise sharply over the next few years as European laws covering electrical and electronic goods dictate that scrap be recycled and bar it from being burned in incinerators. “People want the latest electronic gadgets, but they come at a price,” says Claire Wilton of Friends of the Earth. “Computers and televisions contain toxic materials. It’s the responsibility of manufacturers to design goods, computers and DVD players that are reusable and recyclable.”

The toxic box: What's inside your average 27 kg PC

Electrical and electronic equipment uses a multitude of components that contain carcinogens such as lead and arsenic, plus precious metals such as copper and gold. The recycling and disposal of such components is lucrative but poses serious health risks and environmental dangers.

Plastics: 6.26 kg
Lead: 1.72 kg
Silica: 6.8 kg
Aluminium: 3.86 kg
Iron: 5.58 kg
Copper: 1.91 kg
Nickel: 0.23 kg
Zinc: 0.6 kg
Tin: 0.27 kg

Also present are trace amounts of manganese, arsenic, mercury, indium, niobium, titanium, cobalt, chromium, cadmium, selenium, beryllium, gold, tantalum, vanadium, europium and silver.

Source: Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC)

The recent reports only corroborate what Indian civil society and environmental organisations like Toxics Link have been saying for years but have been unable to substantiate for lack of access to customs data in India . “We have been repeatedly stating over two years that tonnes of e-waste is landing in various Indian ports every year for recycling,” says Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link.

Over the years, Toxics Link has released several groundbreaking reports on the status of e-waste, which have revealed that over 70% of electronic waste collected at recycling units in the Indian capital New Delhi was actually exported or dumped by developed countries such as the United States of America .

Organisations are now calling for the Government of India to act to stop the illegal shipments by ratifying the Basel Convention and implementing the ministry of environment’s Hazardous Waste Rules of 2002.

Already China and India , through the United Nations and other global forums, have urged Britain and other industrialised countries to stop exporting hazardous waste because they do not have the facilities to inspect all the traffic being sent to their ports. European Union environmental agencies concur. “No one can pretend that port authorities in India or Asia are not immune to corruption and abuse…it is far more difficult to carry out inspections at the port of destination,” says the Impel report.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2004