The electronics takeback coalition recently published an interesting an informative report on the world e-waste situation, called “FAQs on Global E‐Waste Dumping.” Here are some excerpts from that report. To read the full report, you can view it online by clicking the link above.
Is American e‐waste really exported to developing countries?
Recycling industry leaders estimate that 50% ‐80% of all electronic waste collected in the US for recycling is not really recycled at all, but is exported via container ship to developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. Since the U.S. government does not even keep track of the volume of e‐waste exported, this figure is an educated estimate and the best that currently exists. Primary destinations in Asia are: China, India, Pakistan, Philippines, and Vietnam. Primary destinations in Africa are Ghana and Nigeria.
What happens to e‐waste exported to these countries?
Exports to Asia
In Asia, typically, the old computers, printers, monitors etc. end up in thousands of “backyard” recycling operations where some of the poorest laborers in the country disassemble and process them using crude, unsafe methods – like breaking open CRT monitors with hammers, “cooking” circuit boards to remove chips , sweeping printer toner dust from cartridges and using dangerous acid baths to extract gold. Workers rarely have any protective equipment, like gloves or masks. And they are unaware of the risks of contamination to which they are exposed. The operations have completely contaminated whole villages with some of the highest levels of pollutants ever recorded. Studies of China’s Guiyu region – where a large volume of e‐waste is processed ‐ found that more than 80% of the children have lead poisoning, the water is unsafe to drink, and the workers have extraordinarily high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies.
Exports to Africa
In Africa container loads of computer scrap arrive from the US in such port cities as Lagos, Nigeria loaded with an average of 75% unusable junk, and 25% resalable used electronic equipment for sale in the marketplace. The junk ends up being burned in dumps, sending plumes of very dangerous pollutants into the local environment.
Is sounds primitive, but isn’t it still recycling?
No. They are removing and selling the metals, but at a great cost to human health. The rest of the material – the plastics and glass, does not usually have resale value in these markets; it is treated as trash. Here’s what happens:
Burning plastics. The plastic casings from TVs and computers which contain heavy metals and brominated flame retardants are often burned, not in controlled incinerators, but in open piles, with no emission controls. Burning these plastics gives off deadly dioxin and furans, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a mixture of some of the most harmful pollutants on earth, which the workers and nearby residents are breathing in on a regular basis. Piles of computer wires are also burned in open fires to recover the copper found inside.
Dumping the leaded glass. While there are places where leaded glass from CRTs can be properly smelted, that’s not what happens to e‐waste sent to the “informal sector” in developing countries. For examples, in Nigeria, CRT tubes are cracked to remove the copper yoke, releasing toxic phosphor dust, and the rest is simply dumped.
Cooking circuit boards. Circuit boards are heated in shallow pans or over open flames to melt the lead solder to allow the removal of chips, exposing the workers to lead fumes. There are no emissions controls to limit exposure.
Acid Stripping. Chips are then often put in acid baths to remove the small amounts of gold. This process is very dangerous to unprotected workers, and releases toxic gases. Finally, following the process the acid‐hydrocarbon residues are simply dumped into nearby streams and rivers.
Does e‐waste export pose a national security problem?
One little‐known horror of electronic waste exportation to China is that it provides the primary feedstock globally for the microprocessor counterfeiting market. This is a new form of counterfeiting with significant national security implications for the US. Workers in China pluck the chips off of circuit boards, and refinish them (and sometimes repaint them) with markings claiming that the chips are new when they can be more than 10 years old. They pass them off as special military grade products when they are just consumer‐grade, coming from the old computers we exported to China. They are then sold into the supply chain, and are very difficult to detect as being fraudulent. They are purchased by the Pentagon, so they can then end up in NASA spacecraft, commercial aircraft computer systems, military hardware such as fighter jet computers, missile navigation systems, etc. A Naval Air Systems Command manager told Business Week that the problem is so prevalent, “we are having field failures regularly within our weapon systems—and in almost every weapon system.”
See Business Week’s frightening investigative article and video, “Dangerous Fakes: How counterfeit, defective computer components from China are getting into U.S. warplanes and ships.”
Does exported e‐waste have anything to do with the lead in children’s products from China?
Yes, scientists and journalists have documented a “Circle of Poison” where lead from e‐waste exported to China returns to us in children’s jewelry. Lead has historically been used for solder on circuit boards in electronics. Circuit boards removed from electronic products sent to China for disassembly are heated in woks or over open flames in primitive backyard recycling operations. The melted solder is removed, dumped into a bucket and later sold to local metals companies. The Wall Street Journal documented these metals being sold to Chinese makers of children’s jewelry, which is imported to the US and sold at dollar stores.