Waste in Asia

While there are documented cases of e-waste dumping in Mexico, West and East Africa, and elsewhere, the majority of this waste ends up in Asia. This is largely because of the deep commitment of many Asian governments to—and the success of many Asian corporations in—high technology and electronics. In urban centres in India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines there has been a marked growth in the development of an infrastructure to support the electronics industry. Since so many of the electronics products sold on the global market are produced in Asia, e-waste dumping from markets abroad in Asia is viewed as logical, because the disassembled products can more efficiently be incorporated back into production there.

A recent report from the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) titled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, documented the international trade in toxic electronic waste from the United States to China, India and other Asian nations (Basel Action Network & Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition 2002).

Computer monitors, circuit boards and other electronic equipment collected in the US— sometimes under the guise of "recycling"—are regularly sold for export to Asia where the products are handled under deplorable conditions, creating tremendous environmental and human health risks. Workers—including children—use their bare hands, hammers, propane torches, and open acid baths to recover small amounts of gold, copper, lead and other valuable materials. What is unused is dumped in waterways, fields, and open trenches, or simply burned in the open air.

In a recent report by Toxics Link India titled Scrapping the Hi-tech Myth: Computer Waste in India, it was revealed that the "disposal and recycling of computer waste in the country has become a serious problem since the methods of disposal are very rudimentary and pose grave environmental and health hazards" (Toxics Link 2003:5).

The import of hazardous waste into India is actually prohibited by a 1997 Indian Supreme Court directive, which reflects the Basel Ban (the international convention prohibiting the export of hazardous waste from OECD to non-OECD nations). Northern nations, however, continue to export e-waste to Southern nations like India, rather than managing it themselves. So the trade in e-waste is camouflaged and is a thriving business in India, conducted under the pretext of obtaining "reusable" equipment or "donations" from industrialized nations (Toxics Link 2003:6).

Since 1995, the village of Guiyu in China's Guangdong province has been transformed from a poor, rural, rice-growing community to a booming e-waste processing centre. While rice is still grown in the fields, virtually all of the available building space has given way to providing many hundreds of small and often specialized e-waste recycling shelters and yards. One impact that has not gone unnoticed has been the deterioration of the local drinking water supply. The local residents claim that the water has become foul tasting and have it trucked in from 30 kilometers away. Water and soil sample tests confirmed that lead and heavy metal contamination was much higher than levels allowed by the USEPA and the World Health Organization (Basel Action Network & Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition 2002:22).

Child labour is widespread in the e-waste workshops in China. The Chinese press has estimated the number of people employed in the sector to be as high as 100,000. A 60-year-old resident of the region told a reporter, "For money, people have made a mess of this good farming village.Every day villagers inhale this dirty air; their bodies have become weak. Many people have developed respiratory and skin problems. Some people wash vegetables and dishes with the polluted water, and they get stomach sickness" (BBC News 2002). The export of hazardous e-waste is rooted in a simple, albeit brutal, calculus. As the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Ted Smith put it, "The reason is because it is ten times cheaper to send it to China than to recycle it here" (personal communication, 18 March 2002).

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