Study: Rich countries trash Asia with high-tech waste

Developed IT countries are exporting huge quantities of hazardous electronics waste to Asia where they are processed in operations that are very harmful to human health and the environment, a group of environmental organizations have charged.

In a report entitled "Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia", the coalition, which includes Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and the Basel Action Network (BAN), said that the U.S. and other rich economies have decided to avoid the growing problem of electronics waste by exporting the crisis to the developing countries of Asia.

According to the report, between 50 percent and 80 percent of e-waste collected in the western U.S. supposedly for recycling is rapidly put on container ships bound for destinations such as China, India and Pakistan. Once in Asia, the waste is manually processed by migrant workers with no protection from the toxic chemicals present in e-waste, the report said.

"The export of e-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution," the report said. "Trade in e-waste is an export of real harm to the poor communities of Asia."

In 2002, 12.75 million obsolete computers will go to U.S. recyclers, of which between 6.4 million and 10 million will be shipped to Asia, the report said.

According to the report, one of the main reprocessing areas is the town of Guiyu in China's Guangdong province, about four hours' drive northeast of Hong Kong. Approximately 100,000 migrant workers make a living by breaking up and reprocessing obsolete computers which have mainly been shipped from North America. These men, women and children are not aware of the health and environmental problems, the report said.

According to the 53-page report, operations for reprocessing computers under these conditions include:

-- riverbank acid works to extract gold,-- open burning of plastics and wires,-- melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards,-- cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes,-- stages of processing which release toxic metals such as lead, beryllium, mercury, chromium and cadmium, as well as brominated flame retardants which are persistent and bio-accumulative poisons.

Many tons of e-waste are dumped on the surrounding land, and the pollution in the area's groundwater and wells is so bad that drinking water for the entire population of Guiyu has to be trucked in from 30 kilometers away, the report said.

"The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia's poorer people to poison," the report said. "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."

The U.S. is the only developed nation not to have signed the Basel Convention, a 1989 United Nations environmental treaty which has instituted a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes, and which has been ratified by 135 countries. The U.S. has adopted a stance of "institutionalized ignorance" towards e-waste export practices which contravene existing U.S. environmental laws, the report said.

Although China passed a law forbidding toxic waste imports in the late 1990s after receiving rogue shipments of e-waste from North America, Europe and Australia, the law has proved easy for importers to circumvent. If China cracks down on the trade, exporters will shift operations to India and Pakistan, the report said.

The BAN and SVTC suggested several initiatives to reduce the e-waste problem. These include:

-- end users should move away from the "trash and buy" cycle caused by the desire to constantly own more powerful computers-- manufacturers should concentrate on reducing the amount of hazardous material which goes into each computer and should inform end users of any hazardous material used in the computers-- manufacturers should be subject to Extended Producer Responsibility, making them accountable for their products over their entire life cycle from manufacture to recycling. This will require manufacturers to make efforts to take back obsolete computers from end users.

-- manufacturers should design for longevity, upgradability, repair and re-use, and also to make recycling easier-- the U.S. should ratify the Basel Convention and not turn a blind eye to exports of hazardous waste to poor Asian communities who face an unenviable choice between poison and poverty"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," an SVTC comment on the report said. "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."

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David Legard

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