Computer cast-offs poisoning the Third World

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The Independent Online

Discarded and obsolete computers are creating a "cyber-age nightmare" and poisoning the environment in countries such as China, India and Pakistan – and the United States is largely to blame – according to an international report published yesterday.

Discarded and obsolete computers are creating a "cyber-age nightmare" and poisoning the environment in countries such as China, India and Pakistan – and the United States is largely to blame – according to an international report published yesterday.

In Guiyu, in southern China's Guangdong province, about 100,000 migrant workers are employed to strip old computers of valuable parts, with the remnants beingdumped in fields and rivers, where poisonous materials such as lead, barium and mercury can leach into the water and soil. Plastics and wires are burnt in the open.

The effect has been to poison local wells, so that fresh water has to be trucked in from 20 miles away.

Jim Puckett, the author of the report, by a coalition of environmental groups, called Exporting Harm: The Hi-Tech Trashing Of Asia, said: "I've seen a lot of dirty operations in Third World countries but what was shocking was seeing all this post-consumer waste."

The study, led by the Basle Action Network (BAN), found that between 50 and 80 per cent of the electronic goods collected for recycling in the western US is exported to Asia, exploiting weaker environmental laws and lower waste handling costs.

But the computers and their screens contain significant levels of poisonous materials. Those all need to be handled carefully to avoid environmental damage.

Workers in Guiyu use rudimentary tools to extract primary elements from scrapped components: computer circuit boards, lead and tin-based solder for resale, aluminium from printer parts and the copper-heavy yokes of cathode-ray tubes.

"A tremendous amount of imported e-waste material and process residues is not recycled but is simply dumped in open fields, along riverbanks, ponds, wetlands, in rivers and in irrigation ditches," the report said.

Materials dumped in Guiyu included lead-laden glass from cathode-ray tubes, burnt or acid-reduced circuit boards, and printer toner cartridges.

The report said sediment and water samples taken in the area indicated the presence of high levels of heavy metals of the kind found in computers and other electronic components.

"Vast amounts of e-waste material, both hazardous and simply trash, is burned or dumped in the rice fields, irrigation canals and along waterways," the report said.

BAN is an independent group named after the international Basle Convention, adopted in 1994 and which 149 countries – including all 15 in the European Union – have signed.

The convention is intended to control the shipment across borders of hazardous waste, but Claire Snow, director of the UK-based Industry Council for Electronic and Electrical Equipment Recycling, warned yesterday that its demands were "extremely complex".

The US is not a signatory to the convention, which puts a total ban on the export of all hazardous wastes from rich to poor countries for any reason, including recycling. But Ms Snow said that even if it were a signatory it can be difficult to define when a computer stops being a saleable item, and when it is "waste".

She said: "The convention defines three levels of waste – green, amber and red. It also says you should not export hazardous ["red"] waste to non-OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, such as China. But one of the problems here is saying what counts as hazardous, and what counts as waste."

If companies in China are buying the computers from the US, then it could argue they are not viewed as waste at all but as a resource that has not reached the end of its life cycle.

Since 1 January, all items containing hazardous waste produced within the European Union must be disposed of within the EU. The ruling has led to problems in the disposal of fridges (which contain CFCs that eat away the ozone layer), cars (which contain plastics and acids) and all sorts of electronic and computer equipment.

In many cases, the cost of separating out the hazardous items has meant that recycling companies have started charging to get rid of products, instead of paying people for the raw materials that they contain.

BAN said the United States should follow Europe's example and immediately implement the global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the United States to developing countries, and solve the "e-waste" problem by forcing the electronics industry to take part in recycling programmes, phase out the use of toxic materials, and use "green" design for long life, easier upgrading instead of replacement, and final recycling.

Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, which helped BAN produce the report, said: "Consumers in the US have been the principal beneficiaries of the hi-tech revolution and we simply can't allow the resulting high environmental price to be pushed off onto others.Rather than sweeping our e-waste crisis out the back door by exporting it to the poor of the world, we have got to address it square in the face and solve it at home, in this country, at its manufacturing source."

The Electronic Industries Alliance, which represents 2,300 companies that generate nearly $550bn (£345bn) of business a year, said it was "deeply concerned" at the findings and promised to work with US regulators to find better ways to manage the end of products' lives.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it was planning to propose changes to US hazardous waste laws aimed at encouraging greater recycling, reuse and remanufacture of such wastes.

The BAN estimates that the 500 million computers in the world contain 6.32 billion lbs (2.87 billion kg) of plastics, 1.58 billion lbs (716.7 million kg) of lead and 632,000 lbs (286,700 kg) of mercury.

It is estimated that about 70 per cent of heavy metals found in US landfills comes from electronic discards such as circuit boards, wires, steel casings and other parts.