Cyber-trashing the third world

Soon to be cyber trash

Courtesy Witold Cizmowski


By Steven M. Schnell

In our age of increasing globalization, most media attention has gone to the export of manufacturing jobs overseas. A less visible export is waste disposal. Increasingly, the poorest people in the world clean up after the richest. The economic forces that make globalization profitable for first world countries have increased the yawning chasm between the world’s rich and poor, while at the same time relegating the dirty work—and its grave health consequences—to geographically remote areas that are all too easy to ignore.

Ironically, even something as ostensibly “green” as recycling can get caught up in these currents. For example, what happens when you get rid of your computer? There are currently a billion computers globally, 200 million in the US alone. Thirty million computers are discarded in US each year, and it’s been estimated that by 2010, three billion computers will have been scrapped. 

Ninety percent of discarded computers end up in landfills, where they leach dozens of toxic chemicals into the environment. The obvious remedy is to recycle more computers. But where do the ten percent of computers that are currently being recycled go? Increasingly, they go overseas. In fact, approximately eighty percent of all electronics collected for recycling leaves the country. There is a growing global trade in e-waste that includes not only computers, but also the outmoded or defective cell phones, iPods, and other electronic gizmos that have become an indispensable part of modern life. 
So far, so good. But recycling is a labor-intensive industry, and like other labor-intensive industries, electronics companies maximize their profits by going where labor is cheapest and environmental regulations are lax or nonexistent. Currently, the most popular destinations for the mounds of cybertrash are China, India, and Nigeria. Many other, less-developed countries are also willing recipients. And the grim reality is that the story of a worker in electronic recycling is at least as hazardous and exploitive as that of any sweatshop worker. Globalization has allowed us to outsource our sweatshops with a vengeance.

Computer recycling can be done responsibly and safely, but this is unfortunately not the case at most overseas facilities. The Basel Action Network has extensively documented the process that occurs in many overseas recycling operations. Workers roast circuit boards in pans to melt plastics and skim off valuable metals—in particular, gold.  Typically, no protective gear is worn. Workers will often bathe the circuitry in a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acid in open vats, trying to extract gold from circuit boards.  Workers break monitors apart with hammers to extract valuable parts, expelling lead and phosphor dust into the air—and their lungs. Wires are stripped out of electronic devices, sorted by type, and then burned in giant open fires to remove the outer coating from the valuable metal inside. The plastic components are burned as well, to enable easy extraction of the metals. Many of the workers live right in the burnyards, breathing in the dioxins, heavy metals, and other chemicals released by the burning process. Indeed, the air around Guiyu, China, the world’s largest site for electronics waste (despite a 2000 ban by the Chinese government on e-waste imports), has the highest dioxin levels ever recorded.

Given such practices, it is not surprising that leftover waste is often dumped into nearby fields and streams. Birth defects, infant mortality, blood disease, and respiratory problems are severe in areas where electronics recycling is prevalent.
Some countries in Europe are beginning to crack down on the waste trade; both the EU and Japan have worked towards creating a system for dealing with electronic waste. The U.S., shamefully, has refused to sign the 1992 Basel Convention that limits international trade in toxic waste.

Fortunately, there are organizations working to remedy the problem. Both the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition campaign actively against the growing tide of e-waste. Their websites (see the sidebar at right) are valuable sources of information, and include lists of environmentally and socially responsible electronic recyclers, and campaigns that you can get involved in to promote responsible electronic disposal.

One of these campaigns has been to pressure electronics manufacturers to participate in takeback programs. Most recently, Sony USA announced a plan to take back, free of charge, any product with a Sony label on it for proper recycling; Dell, HP and Apple also participate. Such participation is encouraging, though there remains the need to ensure that these industrial giants are following through on their promise to  recycle responsibly. Until our government recognizes its responsibility to monitor abuses in the international recycling trade, it’s up to us to ensure that our well-intentioned efforts don’t have toxic side effects halfway around the world.

Steven M. Schnell is an associate professor of geography at Kutztown University and the editor of The Geographical Bulletin.

Published November 2007