January 7, 2008 The Pump Handle 2Comment

The latest issue of National Geographic includes a story on e-waste that’s worth reading – especially if you got a new computer, TV, or other electronic gift over the holidays and now need to figure out how to get rid of the old one.

Discarded electronic goods often contain a few useful bits – drives, memory chips, copper used in wiring – along with toxic substances like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and beryllium. For an impoverished family, breaking down old computers can be a reliable way to earn much-needed cash, but the job is hazardous. Chris Carroll reports:

June is the wet season in Ghana, but here in Accra, the capital, the morning rain has ceased. As the sun heats the humid air, pillars of black smoke begin to rise above the vast Agbogbloshie Market. I follow one plume toward its source, past lettuce and plantain vendors, past stalls of used tires, and through a clanging scrap market where hunched men bash on old alternators and engine blocks. Soon the muddy track is flanked by piles of old TVs, gutted computer cases, and smashed monitors heaped ten feet (three meters) high. Beyond lies a field of fine ash speckled with glints of amber and green—the sharp broken bits of circuit boards. I can see now that the smoke issues not from one fire, but from many small blazes. Dozens of indistinct figures move among the acrid haze, some stirring flames with sticks, others carrying armfuls of brightly colored computer wire. Most are children.

Choking, I pull my shirt over my nose and approach a boy of about 15, his thin frame wreathed in smoke. Karim says he has been tending such fires for two years. He pokes at one meditatively, and then his top half disappears as he bends into the billowing soot. He hoists a tangle of copper wire off the old tire he’s using for fuel and douses the hissing mass in a puddle. With the flame retardant insulation burned away—a process that has released a bouquet of carcinogens and other toxics—the wire may fetch a dollar from a scrap-metal buyer.

Another day in the market, on a similar ash heap above an inlet that flushes to the Atlantic after a downpour, Israel Mensah, an incongruously stylish young man of about 20, adjusts his designer glasses and explains how he makes his living. Each day scrap sellers bring loads of old electronics—from where he doesn’t know. Mensah and his partners—friends and family, including two shoeless boys raptly listening to us talk—buy a few computers or TVs. They break copper yokes off picture tubes, littering the ground with shards containing lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, a carcinogen that damages lungs and kidneys. They strip resalable parts such as drives and memory chips. Then they rip out wiring and burn the plastic. He sells copper stripped from one scrap load to buy another. The key to making money is speed, not safety. “The gas goes to your nose and you feel something in your head,” Mensah says, knocking his fist against the back of his skull for effect. “Then you get sick in your head and your chest.” Nearby, hulls of broken monitors float in the lagoon. Tomorrow the rain will wash them into the ocean.

The group Basel Action Network drew widespread attention to the e-waste problem in 2002, with the release of its Exporting Harm documentary. The film focused on Giuyu, in China’s Guangdong Province, where thousands of people engaged in dangerous practices to extract metals from a massive influx of discarded electronics. China has since banned the importation of electronic waste, but Carroll notes that this has simply shifted much of the problem to other countries – and it can’t undo the contamination that Giuyu suffers:

Yet for some people it is likely too late; a cycle of disease or disability is already in motion. In a spate of studies released last year, Chinese scientists documented the environmental plight of Guiyu, the site of the original BAN film. The air near some electronics salvage operations that remain open contains the highest amounts of dioxin measured anywhere in the world. Soils are saturated with the chemical, a probable carcinogen that may disrupt endocrine and immune function. High levels of flame retardants called PBDEs—common in electronics, and potentially damaging to fetal development even at very low levels—turned up in the blood of the electronics workers. The high school teacher in Taizhou says his students found high levels of PBDEs in plants and animals. Humans were also tested, but he was not at liberty to discuss the results.

As is often the case, the European Union is ahead of the U.S. in addressing the problem; the E.U. now forbids shipments of hazardous waste to poor countries and requires producers to shoulder responsibility for the disposal of their products. Even so, Carroll reports, “In spite of these safeguards, untold tons of e-waste still slip out of European ports, on their way to the developing world.”

If you’ve got an old computer or other electronic item to dispose of, you can check National Geographic’s list of disposal and donation options, or go to BAN’s website for a list of recyclers that have taken a pledge to recycle responsibly.

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