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Time to tackle Asia’s electrical waste mountain

As the market for electrical and electronic products grows rapidly, the lifespan of products is dropping. Some developed world governments are promoting recycling and starting to require that manufacturers safely dispose products at the end of their working life. However, China and India have yet to address the explosion in ‘e-waste’ – electronic scrap – much of it imported from countries with stricter regulations.

A report from Greenpeace International shows
that e-waste
recycling in Asia remains largely unregulated and its impact on recycling workers,
surrounding communities, water courses and soils is poorly studied. Aside from
the volume of scrap, e-waste can contain substantial quantities of hazardous
chemicals including lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated
and chlorinated flame retardants.  Data
collected by Greenpeace in Delhi and the southern Chinese
city of Guiyu indicated contamination of
the workplace and adjacent environment with a range of toxic metals and
persistent organic chemicals.

Many countries do not have the capacity to
deal with the quantity of e-waste they generate or with its hazardous chemical
constituents. Several are exporting the problem to Asian countries in which legislation
to ensure safe and environmentally-sustainable disposal and recycling practices
is either lacking or poorly enforced. Products are dismantled, with some
materials recovered for re-use and the remainder disposed of, often very
crudely, to land or water courses. Dismantling and recycling is typically
carried out in unregulated small workshops without adequate worker protection
or control over emissions.

found high levels of chemicals associated with the electronics industry,
including antimony, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and tin. The range of
organic contaminants identified in waste and sediment samples reflected their current
or historical use in electrical and/or electronic goods, including brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus-based flame
retardants and phthalate esters used as additives in plastics and inks. Environmentally
persistent chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals which can build up several thousand-fold
in body tissues, were particularly in evidence.

Analysis of workplace dust samples shows that:

  • In China,
    concentrations of lead –found in electrical solders and the glass of cathode
    ray tubes of TVs and computer monitors – were hundreds of times higher than typical
    levels recorded for indoor dusts in other parts of the world.

  • In one typical workshop in India, cadmium
    – used in rechargeable batteries and older PVC cables – was present at levels 40,000
    times greater than normal

  • Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants – subject to increasing controls in
    developed countries – were found in many of the samples.

The problem is massive. Every
year, 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated world-wide. China alone discards four million personal computers. Computers
built in the early 1980s were used on average for a decade but their lifespan
has since reduced to an average of about three years.

Greenpeace calls for:

  • further research to identify and quantify the full impact on recycling
    workers and residents of adjacent communities

  • tighter controls on the
    movement of e-wastes across countries and the manner in which they are recycled

  • manufacturers to redesign
    new electronic goods so that they do not contain hazardous chemicals, in order to
    make proper dismantling and component separation easier and recycling safer

  • global regulations, building
    on but extending the scope and extent of recent European Union directives on
    electrical and electronic waste, to ensure that manufacturers design clean products with
    longer life spans, that are safe and easy to repair, upgrade and recycle, and
    will not expose workers and the environment to hazardous chemicals.