Exporting a Toxic Problem

by Sophie Broach:

Carcasses of obsolete computers and discarded cell phones dot the charred landscape of an electronic waste dump in Accra, Ghana. Acrid chemical smoke saturates the air and refuse floats in murky pools of water. Despite this hostile environment, groups of children are also part of the landscape, picking gingerly through the bits of smoldering plastic and metal that litter the ground.

In Ghana, the illicit dumping of electronic waste—e-waste—has created an environmental crisis. According to estimates released by the United Nations Environmental Programme, the world generates as much as 50 million metric tons of e-waste per year, most of it produced in the United States and other developed countries. for these countries, shipping unwanted electronics abroad to developing nations has emerged as a cheaper, easier alternative to complying with stringent e-waste recycling standards at home.

Boys in Ghana burn e-waste to melt away plastic and expose valuable copper wiring. (Greenpeace International)

The Basel Action Network, or BAN, an NGO devoted to stopping “the effluent of the affluent” from polluting poor regions, estimates that 80 percent of the electronics that users trust to purported recyclers end up in African and Asian countries. “for a long time, the Environmental Protection Agency was not on our side and was promoting export as a solution to the e-waste problem,” said BAN founder Jim Puckett.

The first World solution to the e-waste disposal question has contaminated the air, land, and water in countries like Ghana. Mike Anane, the president of the league of Environmental Journalists and a Ghanaian citizen, commented on an e-waste dump-site near Accra: “Now there are no fish in the lagoon or river, in these wetlands that once served as a source of livelihood for many fishermen.” Electronic goods contain a veritable cocktail of hazardous materials, such as phthalates, chlorinated dioxins, brominated flame-retardants, and heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium. These chemicals seep into the high water tables and abundant surface water in wetlands, endangering local drinking water and tainting crops and livestock that may be consumed by people far from the immediate vicinity.

While many are unwittingly affected, scavengers, often children, deliberately bring themselves into direct contact with this debris, seldom aware of the hazardous consequences. E-waste contains precious raw materials; a cell phone’s scrap value is roughly one dollar. Boys, typically aged four to 18 and from poorer regions in Ghana, flock to coastal dumpsites to exploit these forgotten resources. Without sophisticated recycling machinery, they manually dismantle old electronics, melting away plastic with fire to expose valuable copper wiring.

Doctors in the areas around the Accra dumpsites have reported children with elevated levels of lead in their blood and respiratory problems linked to fumes from burning plastics. “Seven-year-olds have approached me saying, ‘I can’t play football; I can’t run as I used to.’ People have told me, ‘My brother had to go home because when he spit, he spit blood,’” Anane said.

“Old electronics have lead and mercury, known neurotoxins, which impact many basic building blocks of life: learning, walking, talking, and motor function. other halogenated compounds when burned, can form dioxins, which are known carcinogens,” said Casey Harrell, a senior campaign specialist at Greenpeace International. Compounding this problem, widespread infectious disease and poor nutrition weaken these children’s physiological defenses, exacerbating the effects of contact with e-waste.

The volume of e-waste generated by developed countries continues to increase, fueled in large part by a first World obsession with getting the latest gadget. “Cheap international shipping, a massive rise in the use of electronics, the absence of strong laws banning the exportation of e-waste to developing countries, and the lax enforcement of many that do exist, have created a perfect storm for e-waste exports to thrive,” Harrell explained. Western corporations, which are not required to prove their electronics are still functional, can export junked, useless goods under the guise of donating the items for re-use.

Many lightly used electronics do find new owners in Ghana, but most of the imported devices—Anane estimates 80 percent—are utterly beyond repair; secondhand dealers abandon these in growing e-wastelands. Here Anane has encountered electronic waste from high profile institutions, universities, and hospitals. “Even the U.S. Congress, even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency!” he exclaimed.

The U.S. government has not flouted its own laws by allowing federal computers to poison Accra because no such laws exist to regulate the flow of e-waste. Meanwhile, Ghana has ratified the Basel Ban, which prohibits the shipment of hazardous waste to less developed countries. With its large harbors, though, enforcement has proven difficult. The European Union has also adopted the ban and may soon require electronics to be tested for functionality prior to shipping.

“The U.S. is no longer a global leader on most environmental issues; believe it or not, we used to be,” Harrell lamented. American inaction on the e-waste problem epitomizes this decline.

Some forces in America have been lobbying against any sort of trade bans whatsoever. When asked if he favored legislation to address the e-waste issue, Mike Watson of dell’s global electronics take-back program replied, “We strongly believe producers should be accountable for their own brand at end of life. Beyond that, each producer should be allowed the flexibility to innovate and create market-driven solutions.”

Despite such obstacles, the United States is making small improvements. In August, EPA Chief Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that preventing irresponsible management of e-waste was one of the EPA’s top six global priorities, and in November, President Barack obama established an interagency task force for responsible electronics stewardship. “Companies like dell and HP have agreed that they will stop exporting not-working computers, and Apple may soon be on board,” Puckett reported.

These companies also have the capability to target the problem at its source by producing non-toxic electronics, but federal legislation will likely be required to make this transition. Corporations have been reluctant to market products as “toxin-free” for fear of making the rest of their “toxic” products look bad. “They don’t want to compete with themselves,” Puckett explained. The British design firm Kinneir Dufort invented revive, a phone that can be disassembled and updated with new parts as they emerge, but it hasn’t hit the market yet. Most companies, though, don’t share such a recycle-centric vision. Instead of paying to recycle products in the United States and Europe or reengineering them with fewer toxins and more modular designs that would facilitate part replacement, many companies transfer these costs to people in the developing world who pay by losing their clean air and drinking water.

Ultimately, consumers must play a critical role in reform by limiting consumption and entrusting obsolete items to certified recyclers. As Anane asserted, “The onus rests with the developed countries to stop these shipments.” Every day we in technologically advanced nations talk on our cell phones, sit with computers in our laps, and stare at TV screens. Now we must begin to think about what happens to these items after we discard them.

Sophie Broach ‘13 is a History major in Pierson College. Contact her at sophie.broach@yale.edu.