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August 5, 2014

E-Waste in Developing Countries Endangers Environment, Locals

US News

By Laura Bradley

WASHINGTON – A rising mountain of hazardous electronic waste is putting workers in developing countries and the environment at risk. Some of the disused computers, cellphones, televisions and other products are locally generated, but the developed world – especially the U.S. – is responsible for sending many of the items.

The developed world has in the past exported an estimated 23 percent of its electronic waste to seven developing countries, according to a study published in June by the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The growing demand for electronics, and the increasingly short life spans of these devices, means e-waste isn’t going anywhere. But the problem is complex, and solutions will not come quickly – or easily.

The average American household owns more than 20 electronic products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Several states have banned disposing of such products in the same way as conventional trash, and the EPA strongly encourages recycling. But when a person recycles a television, for instance, there’s a chance it could end up exported to a country like China, India or Nigeria, where workers at informal recycling operations often use crude, hazardous techniques to extract valuable metals from the equipment and then burn what’s left.

Recycling electronics, it’s been argued, could help developing nations transcend the “digital divide,” as well as grow information and communications technologies in places that need to catch up. Even if devices don’t work, some say recycling could provide spare parts and valuable metals like copper. But the processes to get those valuable materials often entail exposure to heavy metals like lead and mercury.

The EPA, one of the lead agencies on the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship established by the Obama administration, recognizes the potential benefits of e-recycling and encourages the practice over allowing electronic junk to pile up in landfills. But the agency also has “serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics or e-waste, both domestically and overseas, that results in harm to human health and the environment,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in an email.

E-waste is exported largely for the same reason manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas: lower labor costs and fewer regulatory burdens. Handling e-recycling domestically could ensure safer procedures for the environment and workers but would come at a price, as it often costs more to process these devices than the materials are worth.

A man sorts through computer parts and phone chargers at a recycling village in Beijing on July 14, 2009. Many people in the village make a living by stripping old computer parts for recycling.

A man sorts through computer parts and phone chargers at a Beijing recycling village in 2009.

Environmental and Health Hazards

Jim Puckett, executive director of the nonprofit Basel Action Network, said techniques and worker demographics vary across each country. In Ghana, Puckett said he has seen mostly orphans – anywhere from 12 to 20 years old – working in a slum, burning discarded electronics and releasing toxic fumes into the air. In Nigeria, Puckett watched workers of all ages throw electronics into dumps and burn them. They try to repair and recycle the equipment when possible, but many pieces are irreparable.

In China, Puckett said he saw children exposed to hazardous substances.

“Children are digging in the ash from the burned plastics,” Puckett said. “They’re breathing in the fumes. Sometimes it happens indoors when they cook the circuit boards – children are breathing all this in.”

recent study from Toxics Link – a nongovernmental organization that focuses on struggles with toxic materials, both at the global and local level – reported soil and water contamination in two regions in Delhi, India, that engage in e-recycling.

The soil in both Loni and Mandoli contains high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. Soil samples from both regions contained lead, with the highest level in Loni coming in at almost 147 times the control sample. Drinking water has also been contaminated, the study found, with observable amounts of toxic metals. One sample in each region even contained mercury – 710 times the Indian standard limit in Mandoli, and about 20 times the limit in Loni.

India is second only to China in e-recycling volume, followed by Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia, according to the Environmental Science and Technology study, which used 2005 as its reference year.

Exporting of e-waste to developing countries is prohibited in the European Union, but the practice remains legal in the U.S. E-waste still makes it out of the EU illegally, but those doing it can be prosecuted, unlike in America, Puckett said. To legally ship from the EU, Puckett said equipment must first be tested and proven functional.

Handling the Problem at the Source

Purchia said the U.S. is collaborating with Mexico and Canada to promote building capacity for environmentally sound management of e-waste in North America. The EPA-led electronics task force has also worked to provide more information on e-waste and assist developing countries that handle U.S. exports.

The EPA supports the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which would bring to the U.S. the same rules that prohibit exporting e-waste from the EU. But the U.S. has yet to adopt the international treaty, which was negotiated in the late 1980s.

Although the U.S. has not ratified the Basel Convention, Purchia said the country participates in the convention’s working group on environmentally safe management, which is seeking to develop guidance for countries on safe ways to handle waste.

But how the U.S. handles e-waste comes down to what consumers are willing to pay for or what legislators decide, said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Handling e-waste domestically would mean higher labor costs and tighter regulations on how devices are handled, and extracting valuable materials would cost more than they are actually worth. The price difference would necessitate fees to cover costs, O’Brien said.

Workers of Earth Sense Recycle private limited, an e-waste company, arrange computer monitors that have arrived for recycling at a factory in Manesar, 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) from New Delhi, India, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009.

E-waste company workers arrange computer monitors that have arrived for recycling at a factory in Manesar, India, in 2009.

“I think the benefits are that we would have absolute certainty over the environmental impacts and the labor standards that are being enforced, and what’s being done with the material,” O’Brien said. “All those come at a cost, so the question is whether communities that are asking for that service are willing to pay those costs for those benefits.”

Legislation with bipartisan support currently in the House and Senate could put in place the same basic policies the EU follows, making the export of hazardous and electronic waste illegal. A bill in the House was referred to the Subcommittee on Environment last September, and its companion Senate bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works in March.

Purchia said many retailers also now allow consumers to drop off old electronics for recycling. Another Toxics Link study found that take-back policies are not always reliable in India, however. Of 50 brands studied, only seven received a “good” rating based on how easily consumers could find information and drop off old equipment. The remainder ranked from “fair” to “bad.”

Some companies’ recycling services for nations like the U.S. and United Kingdom also differ from those offered in India, the study found.

Consumers can make sure their electronic waste is handled properly by bringing old devices to a recycling facility certified under the e-Stewards program. E-Stewards is voluntary, and certifies that facilities are in full compliance with the Basel Convention.