The high tech boom has brought with it a new type of waste – electronic waste, a category that barely existed 20 years ago. Now e-waste represents the biggest and fastest growing manufacturing waste. The black and white TV turned to colour, the basic mobile phone needed a camera, personal organizer and music, and who wants last year’s computer when it can’t handle the latest software? As we continually update and invent new products the life of the old ones is getting shorter and shorter. Like shipbreaking, e-waste recycling involves the major producers and users, shipping the obsolete products to Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. But instead of being “green” we are exporting a sack full of problems to people who have to choose between poverty or poison.
A story of e-waste – the computer
On average a computer is 23% plastic, 32% ferrous metals, 18% non-ferrous metals (lead, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, chromium and mercury), 12% electronic boards (gold, palladium, silver and platinum) and 15% glass. Only about 50% of the computer is recycled, the rest is dumped. The toxicity of the waste is mostly due to the lead, mercury and cadmium – non-recyclable components of a single computer may contain almost 2 kilograms of lead. Much of the plastic used contains flame retardants, which makes it difficult to recycle.
How do you recycle a computer?
In many countries entire communities, including children, earn their livelihoods by scavenging metals, glass and plastic from old computers. To extract the small quantity of gold, capacitors are melted down over a charcoal fire. The plastic on the electrical cords is burnt in barrels to expose the copper wires. All in all each computer yields about US $6 worth of material (Basel Action Network). Not very much when you consider that burning the plastic sends dioxin and other toxic gases into the air. And the large volume of worthless parts are dumped nearby, allowing the remaining heavy metals to contaminate the area.
Let me give you a computer
Communities in West Africa receive used computers from donors in developed countries. However, what was intended as a useful gift quickly becomes a waste product. When things go wrong, as they often do with computers (especially old ones), the lack of technical support means they end up on the scrap heap.
It is estimated that there are over a billion personal computers in the world at present. In developed countries these have an average life span of only 2 years. In the United States alone there are over 300 million obsolete computers. (US National Safety Council).
The Basel Convention has before it an amendment which would ban the export of hazardous waste for disposal to developing countries. Some countries (for example those in the European Union) have already implemented this proposed amendment. In addition countries like China have banned the importation of e-waste, although significant volumes are still entering the country illegally.