Computer Recycling in Poor Countries

According to EPA in 2007 only about 16% of electronics were recycled in the US. Of these 16 %, 50 to 80% are exported to poorer countries for recycling. In most of these countries the technology to recycle electronic equipment properly simply is not there. Recycling is done in the most primitive manner without any consideration for the safety of the worker and the environment.

Why does our e-waste end up in these countries? Aren’t there any laws against it? You may ask. Our electronics waste, especially the most toxic parts gets shipped to other countries by recycling companies because it is not profitable to recycle it themselves. Toxic e-waste such as CRT monitors and television are costly to recycle in house so these recycling companies sell them to countries such as China, India, Ghana, and Nigeria. Even though there are no strict guidelines and laws that prevent toxic electronic trade from taking place, here in the US, it is against the law to export CRT monitors without permission from the government. So the recycling companies that are exporting CRT monitors and TVs are actually smuggling these toxic e-waste.

Child playing surrounded by toxic e-waste, Guiyu, China Licensed for reuse under creative commons
Child playing surrounded by toxic e-waste, Guiyu, China Licensed for reuse under creative commons

Closing the Digital Divide or Electronic Waste Dumping?

A 60 minutes program illustrated e-waste smuggling very well. They secretly followed a container of CRT monitors from one recycling company to the shipping dock and all the way to its destination in Hong Kong, then to main land China to the town of Guiyu. This town is the center of e-waste recycling. 60 minutes found workers dismantling equipment with their bare hands, using open fire to extract metals and the whole town extremely polluted. Workers are paid $8 a day for this work, which they consider a good pay. They found the air , soil and river extremely polluted. Children from the town have the highest level of lead in their blood and women have one of the highest rates of miscarriages.

Exporting electronics waste is generally thought of as closing the digital gap between the developed countries and the developing countries. But most often the electronics shipped to these countries are obsolete, missing important parts such as the appropriate soft ware or are broken, unfixable, and none functioning. The only use they can get out of such e-waste is to dismantle it and try to retrieve valuable parts and metals. So what is really happening is digital toxic waste dumping on these developing countries.

Poor people including women and children in these countries desperate to make a living dismantle these toxic e waste with very primitive tools or with their bare hands. They often burn parts of these electronics to extract precious metals releasing dangerous chemicals such as dioxins and heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and lead into the air. What they can’t use is either incinerated or dumped in landfills further polluting the air, groundwater, and soil.

Groups such as Green Peace and E-steward are working to change this very unfair trade and the shameful pollution of the environment. Green peace is working to make the electronic manufacturer‘s bear the responsibility to the electronics they produced at the end of its life. E-steward is a spin off from the international organization BAN (Basal Action Network) that has worked to ratify a ban on toxic trade form rich countries to poor ones. All the European counties have ratified this law except for the United States. E- Steward is working with legislators to change that. E-Steward also provides certification service to recycling companies. To be certified by E-Steward electronic recycling companies have to pass rigorous inspection and have to comply with a long list  of correct recycling procedures.

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Comments 2 comments

Ann Nonymous profile image

Ann Nonymous 6 years ago from Virginia

I read about this before and saw it on the news...It is absolutely AWFUL that we throw off our dangerous trash into the communities like it's a dump. Yeah so we are in an effort to go green. How do we achieve that? By shipping our junk away so it all looks good here! Yikes! Excellent hub, Lelane!

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Thank you for your kind words Ann. It will take a lot of effort at many levels to stop this trashing and poisoning of the environment. It starts with the manufacturers who should make all the effort possible to produce safe, non-toxic products that can be upgraded easily and lasts longer. It should also be easy to dismantle so at the end of its life it can be recycled easily and nothing much should be sent to the landfills or incinerators. It is the government having strict regulations and laws about e-waste disposition domestically and the exportation of it to other countries. It is companies and individuals being aware of the toxicity of electronics and reusing it and recycling it as it should be.

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