High-Tech U.S. Trash Floods Asia

By Cat Lazaroff

SEATTLE, Washington, February 26, 2002 (ENS) - Huge quantities of hazardous electronic wastes are being exported to China, Pakistan and India where they are processed in operations that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment, charges a new report by an international coalition of environmental organizations.

child

A migrant child from Hunan province sits atop one of countless piles of unrecyclable computer waste imported from around the world to Guiyu, China. (All photos Basel Action Network)
The organizations behind the investigation - the international Basel Action Network (BAN) and the California community group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), with support from Toxics Link India, Greenpeace China and SCOPE (Pakistan) - document numerous areas in China, India and Pakistan where the remains of America's high-tech revolution poison the land and water on which local people depend.

Their investigation uncovered an entire area known as Guiyu in Quangdong Province, surrounding the Lianjiang River just four hours drive northeast of Hong Kong where about 100,000 poor migrant workers are employed in breaking apart and processing obsolete computers imported primarily from North America. The workers were found to be using 19th century technologies to clean up the wastes from the 21st century.

The operations involve men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved in operations which include 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 investigative team saw tons of electronic wastes being dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. The pollution in Guiyu has become so devastating that well water is no longer drinkable and water must be trucked in from 30 kilometers away for the entire population.

monitor

A woman in Guiyu prepares to smash a cathode ray tube from a computer monitor to remove the copper laden yoke at the end of the funnel. The glass is laden with lead but the biggest hazard is the highly toxic phosphor dust coating inside. Monitor glass is later dumped in irrigation canals and along the river where it leaches lead into the groundwater.
"We found a cyber age nightmare," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of BAN, one of the authors of the group's report, "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," which was released Monday.

"They call this recycling, but it's really dumping by another name," added Puckett. "Yet to our horror, we further discovered that rather than banning it, the United States government is actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated in the U.S. daily."

Puckett referred to the fact that the United States is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention, a United Nations environmental treaty which has adopted a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the worlds most developed countries to developing countries. The U.S. has exempted electronic wastes from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the nation's export laws, because the material was claimed to be destined for recycling.

But the Basel Convention calls for a total ban on the export of all hazardous wastes from rich to poor countries for any reason, including for recycling, the report notes.

toner

A man in Guiyu sweeps toner out of printer cartridge. Toners are made of carbon black - a class 2A probable carcinogen. The cartridges are later dumped by the river.
Computers, their monitors and keyboards, television, cellular phones and other electronic devices contain a host of toxic ingredients, including lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame retardants. Most manufacturers have refused to eliminate hazardous materials or design their products for ready disassembly. The U.S. government fails to hold these manufacturers responsible for end of life management of their products.

Although U.S. manufacturers and waste managers have made some efforts to reclaim and recycle some of the most valuable - and the most toxic - of these ingredients, many remain destined for hazardous waste landfills or unregulated foreign dumping grounds.

Recycling centers often offer "false solutions," the report claims. Between 50 to 80 percent of the electronic waste collected for recycling in the western U.S. is not recycled domestically, the investigators learned, but instead lands on container ships bound for destinations like China, after a few valuable components are removed.

"Few of us realize that the obsolete computer we pay someone to take, in hopes it would be recycled, might end up in China or some other far off Asian destination," the report says. "Even the best intentioned recyclers have been forced, due to market realities, to participate in this failed system."

wire

Women in Guiyu picking through wires torn out of computers. At night, the wires - laden with cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins - are burned in the village where the sorters live and work.
The reason for this flood of electronic waste exports is the ready availability of cheap labor in some Asian countries, and the inadequacy of these nations' environmental and labor protections. In addition, some U.S. states, including California and Massachusetts, have already banned the landfilling of computer monitors and other electronic wastes, increasing domestic pressure to export these wastes.

"A free trade in hazardous wastes leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison - a choice that nobody should have to make," the report notes.

The 15 countries that make up the European Union have implemented the Basel Convention and have banned the export of all hazardous wastes to developing countries for any reason. They have also readied legislation that will ensure that manufacturers are responsible for the entire life cycle of computers, are required to take computers and appliances back with the costs being born by the producers, and additionally, must agree to specific phase out dates for toxic components.

labels

Some of the labels found on computers and monitors disposed of in Guiyu, China.
Japan also has taken steps to solve the problem by mandating design criteria and mandatory take back programs. BAN and SVTC are calling on the United States to follow these examples.

"Consumers in the U.S. have been the principal beneficiaries of the high tech revolution and we simply can't allow the resulting high environmental price to be pushed off onto others," said Ted Smith, executive director of SVTC. "Rather than sweeping our E-waste crisis out the backdoor 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 report is available online at: http://www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/technotrash.htm