Poisonous detritus of the electronic revolution
Britain is throwing out more than one million tonnes of electronic “e-waste” such as broken computer monitors and discarded cellphones every year, and new government figures show that more than ever is going abroad.
Last year, 23 000 tonnes of IT and electronic equipment was shipped out illegally, mostly to China, west Africa, Pakistan and India.
In one case, the documents on a container waiting to be shipped from Felixstowe to Pakistan declared that its contents were innocuous plastic packaging. But when customs officers opened it up they found tonnes of broken computer monitors and other electronic waste collected by a south Wales company which was sending it to Lahore to be dismantled by hand for its lead and other valuable toxic contents. The illegal shipment of hazardous waste was blocked and returned.
The government’s pollution watchdog, the Environment Agency, says the e-waste exports are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Last year such waste involved tens of thousands of old computers, 500 000 television sets, three million refrigerators, 160 000 tonnes of electrical equipment and millions of discarded cellphones, all sent to the poorest countries in the world.
But the agency admits it has no idea how much of the waste is being deliberately dumped on poor countries by companies trying to avoid paying increasingly high disposal costs in the UK, and how much is only technically illegal because companies have filled in the forms incorrectly.
“It is not necessarily all illegal,” said an agency spokesperson. “There is a legitimate international trade in goods with an overseas market for usable equipment such as computers and TVs. Further work will help us to find out how much is illegal. Our investigations suggest some exporters are not seeking the appropriate legal authorisation.”
However, two reports not released by the Environment Agency but seen by The Guardian suggest the problem is far greater than the government wants to admit.
One, by the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (Icer), is based on confidential interviews with businesses and concludes that most computer exports are certainly waste because the goods are neither tested nor repaired before export.
Another, by Impel, a grouping of six European countries’ environment agencies including Britain’s, says that exporters are finding new ways of bypassing the rules and that governments have neither the resources nor the will to give any priority to checking what leaves the country.
“Priorities for enforcement are low, and as a consequence only little or no capacity is reserved for enforcement ... Follow-up actions cannot be carried out. Enforcement of legislation is absolutely needed,” say the report’s authors.
Impel’s ongoing study of six major European ports, including Felixstowe, has found that 22% of all the waste exports checked for more than a year were illegal. Enforcement agencies in the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Poland and elsewhere found large quantities of computer equipment, electrical cable, cathode ray tubes, single-use cameras, old tyres, and oil and contaminated motor parts being exported.
In many cases the authorities had to let the shipment go because they could not tell what equipment was reusable or what was obsolete.
Many of the containers inspected showed misleading information about their contents and origin, and the report suggested scrap exporters were trying to confuse the authorities. One tactic, it noted, was to “port hop”—send waste from one European destination to another, leaving a trail of documents which are impossible to check. A shipment of British single-use cameras complete with batteries was sent to Germany, where it was twice repacked before being shipped to China for “recycling”.
China and India, thought to be the target of most e-waste exports, have urged Britain and other rich countries through the United Nations and other international forums to stop exporting hazardous waste because they do not have the facilities to inspect all the traffic being sent.
EU environment agencies agree. “No one can pretend that port authorities in India or Asia are not immune from corruption and abuse. It is far more difficult to carry out inspections at the port of destination,” says the Impel report.
The scale of the trade and the damage it is doing is becoming clear. A major investigation by an international coalition of environmental groups earlier this year found huge quantities of e-waste being exported to China, Pakistan and India, where it was being reprocessed in operations extremely harmful to both human health and the environment.
The groups, including Basel Action Network (Ban), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Toxics Link India and Greenpeace, found e-waste mixed with scrap metal from Japan, South Korea, the US and the EU, and identified a town called Guiyu, about 320km north-east of Hong Kong in the coastal province of Guangdong, where up to 100 000 migrant labourers break up and reprocess obsolete computers from around the world.
The work involves men, women and children unaware of the health and environmental hazards of dismantling such goods—processes that include the open burning of plastics and wires, acid used to extract gold, the melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes.
Already Guiyu has become so polluted that well water is undrinkable and water has to be trucked in for the entire population, the report said.
“We found a cyber-age nightmare,” said Jim Puckett of Ban. “They call this recycling, but it’s really dumping by another name. Yet to our horror, we discovered that rather than banning it, governments are actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated.”
The groups appealed to global manufacturers to take responsibility for their electronic products and phase out the dangerous substances found within them.
“It is ironic that these electronic discards are being collected in industrialised countries for the purpose of dumping them in poor countries. Asia is the dustbin of the world’s hazardous waste,” said Von Hernandez of Greenpeace International.
Exports of e-waste are set to rise sharply in the next few years as European laws covering electrical and electronic goods insist that scrap is recycled and barred from being burned in incinerators.
“People want the latest electronic gadgets, but they come at a price,” said Claire Wilton of Friends of the Earth. “Computers and televisions contain toxic materials. It’s the responsibility of manufacturers to design goods, computers and DVD players that are re-usable and recyclable.”
What’s in a typical 27kg desktop computer
Electrical and electronic equipment uses a multitude of components that contain carcinogens such as lead and arsenic, plus precious metals such as copper and gold. The recycling and disposal of such components is lucrative but poses serious health risks and environmental dangers
Plastics - 6,26kg
Lead - 1,72kg
Silica - 6,8kg
Aluminium - 3,86kg
Iron - 5,58kg
Copper - 1,91kg
Nickel - 0,23kg
Zinc - 0,6kg
Tin - 0,27kg
Also present are trace amounts of manganese, arsenic, mercury, indium, niobium, yttrium, titanium, cobalt, chromium, cadmium, selenium, beryllium, gold, tantalum, vanadium, europium, and silver.