E-waste has become one of the fastest growing waste streams across the world. The United Nations Foundation estimates that every year about 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally. Advancements in technology, availability of snazzy gadgets and appliances and their affordability have led to wide spread proliferation of electronics. This advancement has also led to shorter life spans and faster obsolescence of gadgets and boosted discard rates adding to the already huge pile of e-waste. Although the problem of e-waste is not limited to just developed nations (a major contributor to e-waste), a significant portion of the e-waste brunt is being borne by emerging economies. The reason – a major part of the e-waste generated in developed nations invariably ends up in developing nations, mostly illegally, for processing and disposal. A recent report by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) found that electronic waste in China is estimated to jump by 200%-400%, and by 500% in India, by 2020. The report also states that China may also become the largest e-waste dumping ground for developed nations. Another recent study by ASSOCHAM found that the Delhi-NCR region is all set to become the e-waste dumping capital by 2015 with 85% of the electronic waste from developed nations finding its way here for disposal.
Developed Nation’s E-waste – A Burden for Developing Nations: Why
The 2012 report by Geneva’s International Labour Organization (ILO) found that 80% of the electronic waste marked for recycling in developed nations eventually end up being shipped to Asian and African countries like China, Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, India and Vietnam. Another 2012 report titled “Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia” by the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) found that 50%-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling in the US is exported to Asian and African countries. So why is it that e-waste from developed nations ends up in emerging economies? The answer is quite simple, and it paints a very bleak picture:
• It’s Cheaper: Recycling a computer in the US costs about $20. The same computer can however be sold to scrap dealers in India for as low as $4. So instead of paying for recycling e-waste, companies can earn a profit by selling their e-waste to developing countries, where these end of life electronics are dismantled and processed for extracting metals using crude and hazardous processes. Rather than recycling this electronic waste in an environmentally responsible manner, contractors find it more attractive to ship it out to developing nations, as it is about 10 times cheaper to export e-waste as compared to recycling it locally in developed nations.
• It’s Profitable: Companies that produce e-waste tend to have contracts with US recyclers for handling their electronic waste, through their local recyclers. However, there are numerous brokers who make their way in and cut deals with these US recyclers for processing their e-waste. However, instead of processing the e-waste, the broker ships it overseas and turns up a huge profit. The company which had originally produced the e-waste is under the impression that they have dealt with their scrap responsibly, when actually it has been shipped abroad to developing nations.
E-waste from developed nations is also being dumped in developing nations in the name of “bridging the global digital gap”. Discarded reusable electronics from developed nations is often donated as charity to developing nations in Africa and Asia. However, about 25%-75% of these electronics exported as charitable donations to developing nations turn out to be non-reusable and are marked for processing in local informal e-waste recycling sector.
Threats to Developing Nations from E-waste Dumping: The Aftermath
In most third world developing nations a major part of the electronic waste generated internally and imported from overseas is processed in the unorganized or informal e-waste processing sector. About 95% of the e-waste recycled in India is handled by the informal recycling sector, while a measly 5% is managed by authorized recycler. The informal sector primarily consists of independent recyclers, dismantlers and collectors. Once the electronic waste arrives, it is off loaded and sent to local recycling setups from the unorganized e-waste sector for processing to extract metals, and this is where the threats actually become a reality. Let’s have a look:
• Hazardous & Inefficient Techniques: The informal e-waste recycling sector in developing countries is responsible for handling majority of the e-waste. However, these recycling setups lack the technology to process e-waste and extract metals in an environmentally responsible manner. They make use of hazardous and crude techniques like open air incineration and acid stripping, which release e-waste toxins into the environment and polluting the ecosystem. Also, the techniques used for metal extraction are inefficient, so the total amount of metals that could have been extracted is left unrecovered.
• Environmental Hazards: The methods used for processing e-waste by the informal sector causes several environmental hazards as it releases numerous toxins into the air and water. The effluents from these processes contain acids and other toxins like mercury, which are dumped in local water bodies, while the other solid remnants of incomplete e-waste processing are dumped in landfills, where e-waste toxins eventually seep into the soil and ground water, severely polluting the ecosystem and affecting nearby communities.
• Health Hazards: Workers in the informal e-waste sector are exposed to numerous toxins and chemicals while processing e-waste. There are no worker safety regulations in place, so workers collect, dismantle and process e-waste without any form of protective gear to prevent exposure to toxins. Often labourers work in ill ventilated and dimly lit rooms. Workers keep their hands dipped in harmful chemicals for long periods which over time cause serious health condition. They are also exposed to toxic fumes while incinerating e-waste components. Exposure to such toxins can lead to numerous health hazards like asthma, cancer and even neurological disorders.
• Deployment of Child Labour: Children constitute a major part of the work force employed by e-waste recycling setups in developing countries. According to estimates from the ASSOCHAM study about 35,000 to 45,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 are engaged in e-waste collection, dismantling and processing. According to an ILO report, children between the ages of 11 and 18, but sometimes as young as 5 were found to be involved in burning and manual dismantling activities at the Agbogbloshie e-waste site in Ghana. Girls between the ages of 9 and 12 were found to be working as collectors. Another study found that 88% of the children were suffering from lead poisoning, in Guiyu, China due to toxic and primitive recycling processes being employed there. As these children are still in their developing stages they are more vulnerable to threats posed by crude e-waste processing activities, and may suffer from permanent disabilities, behavioural, psychological and neurological damages besides being exposed to carcinogens and neurotoxins.
Steps need to be taken to neutralize the threats posed to developing nations by illegal dumping of e-waste, before the damage done goes beyond the proverbial point-of-no-return.
Illegal E-waste Dumping in Developing Nations: What the Law Says?
While a few countries have formulated laws to curb illegal e-waste dumping in developing nations, it still remains to be seen how much effect they have on the e-waste scenario. The European Union in 2012 passed the new Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment to prevent illegal export of e-waste disguised as legal shipments of used electronic and electrical equipment. The new directive requires exporters to test used equipment intended for export and provide documents describing the shipment’s nature before exporting. Recently in 2013, US passed the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA), which restricts export of electronic waste to third world countries in order to protect the environment, health and national security risks. Although these laws and directives are in place, it will take some time before they yield results.
Attero, a NASA recognized technology innovator, has taken steps to deal with the e-waste that ends up in developing nations, particularly in India. Powered by disruptive eco-friendly e-waste recycling technology, Attero has the capability to set up low cost low capacity non hazardous e-waste processing and metal extraction plants to deal with the e-waste issue. Attero has already set up a fully automated state of the art e-waste processing plant and developed a pan India reverse logistics network spread over 25 states with bulk collection from 500 cities to collect and process e-waste. The company plans to set up multiple low cost e-waste processing plants in other emerging economies where most of the world’s electronic waste ends up to help manage e-waste in an environmentally responsible and safe manner. Attero has also launched the Clean e-India Initiative in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank entity, to help establish an effective consumer e-waste take back model by working together with all stakeholders involved in the electronics supply chain, including even the informal recycling sector. Under this initiative, Attero provides training to recyclers and dismantlers from the informal sector to facilitate adoption of environmentally responsible and safe e-waste recycling practices.
However, a lot more still remains to be done in order to help curb illegal e-waste dumping in third world countries. Consumers, including bulk consumers have to be made to realize that e-waste is a serious issue and that they need to make conscious and responsible decisions regarding how, where and through whom they dispose their electronic scrap.