Digital Dumps: A Growing Threat for Developing Countries

Mar 17th 2008, Jayati Ghosh
It is a sight that that is increasingly only too common in urban India, and now even in some more prosperous rural areas of the country: ramshackle piles of dismembered pieces of discarded electronic equipment such as computers, CD players, televisions and cell phones lying around in the odd corners of offices and homes. Or else simply dumped in the open in garbage heaps, and then being painstakingly searched through by rag-pickers of all ages, who look for any elements that can be resold.

In developing countries such as ours, where recycling occurs as a matter of course because of the widespread poverty and sharp inequality that mark our consumption patterns, this may seem as something quite obvious and hardly worthy of comment. Some may even see this as evidence of our greater ability to use and re-use material items more effectively than the wasteful West. Yet this cavalier attitude to electronic waste is already emerging as one of the major hazards to the health of both the environment and our people, and we ignore the crucial issue of electronic waste management at our own peril.

This is particularly so because India, like many other developing countries, has to deal with e-waste that is far in excess of what is generated by production and consumption within the country, as we are net importers of e-waste that is cynically dumped on us by the developed world. The global trade in e-waste is huge and growing, and is only partly illegal even though there have been attempts to regulate it.

In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing component of municipal waste across the world, and some estimates say that more than 50 million tonnes of it is generated every year. A major reason for this is the very short life-span of most electronic goods, especially in the West, where such goods are routinely replaced at least every two years, and then either simply discarded or exported to developing countries where there is still a demand for such second-hand goods. Because of the high rate of obsolescence, very large quantities of e-waste are generated.

But why exactly is such e-waste more of a problem than all the other waste that is regularly generated by industrial societies? The problems arise from the very significant health and environmental hazards associated with e-waste. Most electronic goods contain significant quantities of toxic metals and chemicals. If these are left untreated to lie around in landfills or dumps, they leach into the surrounding soil, water and the atmosphere, thereby generating obvious adverse effects for human health and ecology. Many elements of the waste are hazardous, as the circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, connectors and other elements that are essential for most such goods almost always contain poisonous substances such as lead, tin, mercury, cadmium and barium.

Therefore the health impact of e-waste is evident. It has been linked to the growing incidence of several lethal or severely debilitating health conditions, including cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and birth defects. As usual, this impact is worse in developing countries, where people often live in close proximity to dumps or landfills of untreated e-waste.

There are basically four ways in which e-waste can be dealt with, and none of them is really very satisfactory. The most common one, especially in the developing world, is simply to store it in landfills, but this has all the dangers described above. For this reason it has already been banned in the European Union and some other developed countries, who instead tend to export this waste to poorer countries. Another way is to burn the goods concerned, but this too is problematic because it releases heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury into the atmosphere.

Re-using and recycling are obviously preferable because they increase the life-span of the products and therefore imply less waste over time. The re-use of second hand electronic goods in the developing world falls in this category, although it still eventually generates waste that ends up located in these countries. But recycling needs to be done in particular ways that protect the workers concerned, who would otherwise be exposed to all the health hazards mentioned above. In most developing countries, this is a real problem because recycling is dominantly done in scrap yards by hand, without any protection for the unskilled workers involved in such activity.

These difficulties in dealing with e-waste probably explain why the global trade in e-waste has expanded so rapidly, as developed countries find this an easy way to simply transfer the problem to poorer countries whose governments are either not aware of all the risks involved, or feel that they are accessing cheaper second-hand versions of electronic goods.

Some international attempt at regulation has occurred. The Basel Convention of 1992 is an international treaty (part of the United Nations Environmental Program) whose central goal is "environmentally sound management”, which involves controlling hazardous waste from its production to its storage, transport, reuse, recycling, and final disposal. It is supposed to set up controls, enforcement mechanisms and requirements that signatories agree to follow. These include preventing and monitoring illegal traffic in hazardous waste, promoting cleaner technologies and production, and focusing specifically on helping developing nations.

Typically, the US, which signed the treaty, has not yet ratified it, and the NGO Basel Action Network, or BAN, has called the US "the worst actor" among developed countries that perpetuate dumping of hazardous waste in developing nations. It is estimated that as much as 80 per cent of the waste that is collected for recycling is actually being exported from the US.

The European Union has implemented a ban on the export of e-waste, but it has generally been found to be ineffective, as the illegal trade in e-waste continues to flourish. According to Greenpeace, inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found that as much as 47 per cent of the waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the China, India and Africa. This even though China has also banned the import of e-waste since 2000!

India is one of the important destinations for this global hazardous trash, although there are few estimates of how large the problem actually is since so much of the trade is extra-legal. Once again Greenpeace has found that in 2005, as many as 25,000 workers were employed at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where as much as 20,000 tonnes of e-waste were being handled in a year, around a quarter of this coming from computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai, but there are surely many more spread across the country that have not been identified.

The poor regulations and absence of any clear policy of the Indian government or state governments, for dealing with electronic waste generated within the country add to the problems and potential for disaster. Indeed, it is surprising that this issue is still not sharply on the policy antennae and there have been no calls for urgent action.
Some of this may be due to the more general and deplorable tendency for so many of our policies, including those relating to the environment, to come to us dictated by the current concerns and fashions of the West. So now, since “global warming” is the flavour of the month, all other environmental concerns, including the more severe and immediate problems of pollution and degradation that affect our people directly, are being given relatively short shrift.

Yet this is an issue that clearly must be addressed immediately. Strategies must be evolved to reduce the generation of e-waste, to prevent the legal or illegal import of such waste, and to develop feasible and safe ways of dealing with it within our own context and requirements. Otherwise the unregulated accumulation of electronic waste may well lead to a public health disaster in the near future.


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