Something’s cooking in a forgotten corner of the province of Zheijiang, China — and it’s the perfect recipe for a health and environmental disaster. Ingredients of this toxic swill include assorted electronic circuit boards simmered in pure nitric and hydrochloric acids.
For a meagre $1.50 a day, labourers in the province’s Taizhou region heat computer circuit boards in order to extract and recover valuable metals within the products for reuse. The process is done outdoors, by hand, and releases lethal toxic fumes.
The same process can be observed in the town of Giuyu in Guangdong province. What used to be a simple, farming community has been transformed into a low-tech e-waste recycling operation that – through manual labour – recovers components and reusable material from obsolete computer and other electronic equipment.
Nearby, someone is dismantling toner cartridges with his or her bare hands, without wearing any respiratory protection. Young children sort copper wires to remove reusable material — again with their bare hands. Women melt electronic microchips over coal-fired, shallow, wok-like grills containing molten lead-tin solder, sometimes aided by electric fans that blow away the toxic stench.
At night, leftover parts, including wires, plastic computer casings, discarded circuit boards and glass from monitors, are burned into a mountain of toxic ash. Most of it ends up in the town’s river, which in the span of only five years has been transformed from a safe source of drinking water into a stream of black poison.
Despite being both hazardous and illegal, this is a familiar electronic recycling process that’s all too common in China and other Asian countries like India and Pakistan. And it’s where most old computers from Canada end up as a result of being sold as scrap to so-called e-waste “recyclers.” The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the Basel Convention.TextIn fact, e-waste from industrialized nations typically ends up being exported to poor and/or developing countries. Some estimates suggest between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of electronic waste ends up somewhere in Asia.
Most of the e-waste processed in Guiyu bears a label suggesting North American origin, according to a report published by Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN). BAN is a global watchdog seeking worldwide prohibition of e-waste export to third-world countries.
Under the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal — an international treaty of 134 signatory countries — it is illegal to export e-waste to countries that have imposed an import ban.
In April 2000, the Chinese government banned the import of certain types of e-waste, including monitors, telephones and computers. Despite the ban, however, container loads of old electronic and computer equipment still manages to make its way into Chinese ports, ending up in recycling facilities such as those in Giuyu and Taizhou, according to BAN.
- 13.8 million new computers will be sold in Canada between 2005 and 2010
- With current efforts, only less than 3 million will be re-used, stored or recycled responsibly
- In 2002, 157,000 tonnes of e-waste were disposed, of which only 9,000 tonnes were recycled
A subsequent amendment to the treaty, passed in 1994, imposes a ban on the export of hazardous waste from member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Union(EU) to non-OECD and non-EU countries. The amendment essentially prohibits rich countries from dumping their e-waste to poorer nations that have neither the technological nor financial means to manage e-waste processing in an environmentally friendly way.
While Canada was among those countries that signed the 1989 Convention, it did not sign the subsequent 1994 Amendment. The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the Basel Convention.
BAN estimates that between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of e-waste collected for recycling in the U.S. ends up in container ships bound for Asia. Ninety per cent of that material will likely go to China. Ironically, this e-waste is likely shipped back to Asia on the very ships that may have transported new electronic equipment from Asia to North America.
The shortening lifespan of computers is increasing the amount of e-waste generated around the world. Greenpeace International, based in The Netherlands, reports that the lifespan of business computers used in industrialized nations has shrunk from an average of six years to only two years during a period from 1997 to 2005. Greenpeace also reports that 183 million new personal computers were sold worldwide in 2004, an increase of 11.6 per cent from the previous year.
Statistics from Environment Canada give computers a longer lifespan of between four and five years. Over a five-year period beginning in 2005, some 13.8 million new computers will be sold in Canada. But if e-waste management programs remain at current levels, only about three million of all sold computers in the country will be reused, stored and recycled in an environmentally friendly way, according to an Environment Canada-sponsored IT and Telecom Waste report published in 2003. The remainder is destined for disposal and most of it will likely end up in Asia.
BEARING THE RESPONSIBILITY
Environmental lobby groups such as BAN and Greenpeace say manufacturers should step up to shouldering the responsibility of managing the entire lifecycle of computer products. E-waste management should begin long before a computer breaks down and renders itself useless. It has to start at product design, said Richard Gutierrez, BAN’s toxics policy analyst.
“From the very inception of [the product] all the way to the time when products are thrown out, [manufacturers] should be held responsible — especially those companies that introduce toxic materials into their products,” said Gutierrez.[It’s time for] these manufacturers to internalize the cost of the environmental damage their products do, instead of…directly passing it to consumers and government who end up trying to deal with the cost.Richard Gutierrez>Text With new technologies and upgrades appearing every 18 months, Greenpeace estimates that by 2010, there will be more than 700 million new PCs in use around the world.
Stressing that taxpayers should not bear the cost of recycling, Greenpeace is urging manufacturers to do two things: be responsible for taking back old equipment for reuse and/or being responsible for proper recycling.
Greenpeace also says manufacturers should use only safe, non-hazardous materials in electronics products.
Some IT hardware producers in Canada are taking the initiative and utilizing safe e-waste management programs. These companies are guided by recent studies that show a positive link between vendors that demonstrate corporate responsibility and a customer’s preference to buy from such companies.
In fact, a 2005 GlobeScan survey on corporate soc