The Human Cost of Electronic Waste; When Recycling Is Really Dumping

Coffs Coast Advocate (Coffs Harbour, Australia), June 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Human Cost of Electronic Waste; When Recycling Is Really Dumping


Byline: Vani Naidoo

YOU have to look twice to distinguish the form of the knobbly-kneed little boy hunched over a non-descript silver rectangular container.

The rising sun does nothing to lift the suffocating blackened haze that burns the eyes and leaves an acrid taste in the mouth.

The little boy shivers in the cold dawn but seems oblivious to his surroundings, rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands swishing the copper wires in the acid bath in a macabre rhythm.

In the aptly named Sodom and Gomorrah, an electronics wasteland in the Ghana capital Accra, nine-year-old Isaac has been hard at work for almost an hour. Every so often he stops and readjusts the makeshift cotton mask around his mouth, the scant covering serving only to muffle his strangled coughs.

At his feet is a small mound of stripped copper a a kilogram by dayas end will net him $3. Isaac is not alone. All around him there are little fires burning; children scouring the piles of unwanted electronic goods, while women with babies strapped to their backs are boiling motherboards in 40-litre drums to extract the precious metals trapped in the circuitry.

All the while, they sup on a diet of carcinogenic fumes and toxins, which result in life-threatening cancers, tuberculosis and skin diseases.

Recent studies by United Nations scientists found the soil and surrounding water sources show a mixture of lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, nickel and chlorinated dioxins at more than 50 times the maximum allowable concentration.

Unfortunately, says the UN Environment Protection agency, these scenes are not confined to one impoverished neighbourhood on the other side of the world.

Large cities in Nigeria, Vietnam, India, China, Pakistan and the Philippines have their own gates of hell, horrible dumping grounds for the electronic trash of First World countries with the skills to pass on their problems and the means to do so.

Electronic waste, or e-waste as it is commonly known, refers to electronic products like computers and computer equipment, televisions, DVD and CD players, stereos and sound systems, digital cameras, mobile phones, scanners, photocopiers a in fact, any appliance driven by electricity or batteries.

These electronic products are made from a number of component materials and generally have to be dismantled before they can be reused in the manufacturing process.

Many of these materials are extremely valuable, like gold and platinum; non-renewable, like zinc, tin, aluminium and copper; as well as incredibly hazardous, like lead, mercury and cadmium.

Sending e-waste to landfill sites not only means a loss of resources but the potential these hazardous substances will leech into the water and soil, eventually causing environmental disasters. Responsible recycling involves the use of specialised equipment and expensive operational and labour costs, which are often higher than the returns received on the recovered resources.

These costs are the most likely reason only 9% of the 60million tonnes of e-waste generated around the world last year was recycled and the driving factor in the creation of those cesspits of human misery in desperate Third World countries battling for survival.

Most nations with a conscience, (Australia included) have signed up to the Basel Convention, which prohibits developed countries from dumping unauthorised e-waste at the doors of their poorer counterparts but to a large extent this law remains unregulated.

True, if caught, exporters face large fines and a prison term but many of the containers are palmed off either as scrap metal and plastics or as adonateda electronic goods.

More than 16million televisions, computers, mobile phones and related accessories are disposed of in Australia each year.

Only 12% is recycled and despite our strict laws for their disposal, it would be naA[macron]ve to think some of those discarded items have not landed on foreign shores. …

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