Exporting e xposure

E-WASTE - a byproduct of the US technological revolution - is being sneaked into India, Pakistan and China. This revelation has been made in a report released by five non-governmental organisations (NGOs) spread over four countries. The document titled 'Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia' warns that the processing of this junk is leading to environmental damage and putting public health at risk.

The NGOs that have carried out the investigation are the US-based Basel Action Network (BAN), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), Toxics Link India, Greenpeace China and the Pakistan-based Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE). Their study states that nearly 50-80 per cent of the electronic waste, including discarded computers, collected for recycling in the US lands up in destinations like India where labour costs are much lower and environmental rules lax.

The size of such consignments can be estimated from a 1999 study conducted for the US National Safety Council, which projected that in 2001 more than 41 million personal computers would become obsolete in America. The electronic waste generated in the US way back in 1998 was estimated to be to the tune of 5-7 million tonnes and projected growing at a rate of 3-5 per cent. If even half of this is finding its way into Asian shores today, as the study suggests, the total weight of the hazardous waste could be nearly three million tonnes.

While the report does not put a figure on the volume of the electronic trash being dispatched to Asia, it does mention that the 500 million computers in use today contain about 287,000 kilogrammes of deadly mercury, besides tonnes of other heavy metals and hazardous chemicals (see box: Toxic components).

A team of the NGOs was able to zero in on at least one pocket in China where all these dangerous chemicals were being handled. It was found that about 100,000 migrant workers were employed in breaking apart and processing obsolete computers in the area of Guiyu in Guangdong Province, surrounding the Lianjiang river northeast of Hong Kong. The computers were primarily from the US. The processes used included open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes. The watchdogs witnessed several tonnes of electronic waste being simply dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area.

The report also mentioned similar areas in India and Pakistan, where, recycling of electronic waste was being undertaken under harmful conditions. R R Khan director for hazardous wastes in the Union ministry of environment and forests, did not, however, have any information about the document. He said, "We are not aware of any such report." The ministry was, in fact, unaware of the hazardous trade in recyclable electronics in India, he added.

The environmental organisations are calling on the US to follow Europe's example and sign the Basel Convention, which seeks to enforce a global ban on the export of hazardous shipments to developing countries. USA is also being urged to solve the electronic waste problem 'upstream' by making it mandatory for the industry to institute 'take-back' recycling programmes, practise toxic input phase-outs and develop green designs for longevity. Two other measures suggested in this regard are the provision to upgrade products and the facility to enable their recycling.

Consumers in the US have been the principal beneficiaries of the high-tech revolution and we simply can't allow the resulting high environmental cost to be passed on to others,, says Ted Smith, executive director of SVTC. "Rather than dump our e-waste crisis through the backdoor by exporting it to the developing nations, we have got to address it squarely and solve it at home, in this country, at its manufacturing source," he adds.