E-waste, the polite term for electronic goods that have lived their useful life, is becoming a nightmare for India and other countries.Young ragpickers sifting through rubbish are an oft-paraded image of India’s chronic poverty, but scavengers—especially children—face new hazards picking apart old computers as part of the growing e-waste “industry.” E-waste, already extremely dangerous (certain components contain hazardous materials, depending on their condition and density), becomes more lethal as it piles up. This hazard threatens not only humans or the immediate environment, but the larger space that we live in as well. Discarded electronics—computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, fax machines, electric lamps, cell phones, audio equipment and batteries—if improperly disposed leach lead and other substances into the soil and groundwater. If done as per standardised procedures, these products can be reused, refurbished, or recycled so that they are less harmful to the ecosystem. Unfortunately, in a country that is forever balancing Poverty with Safety, they are not. The question is, can this ever be done and if not, what then?
Asif—aged about seven—spends his days dismantling electronic equipment in a tiny, dimly-lit unit in the eastern periphery of New Delhi along with six other boys. “My work is to pick out these small black boxes,” he says, fingers deftly prising out integrated circuits from the pile of computers stacked high beside him. His elder brother Salim, at 12, is also hard at work, extracting tiny transistors and capacitors from wire boards. The brothers, who decline to reveal how much they earn a day, say they are kept frantically busy as increasing numbers of computers, printers and other electronic goods are discarded by offices and homes. Of course, the idiot would ask what they’re doing out of school, but it’s not too hard to answer that—it fetches them money, which school will not, at least till they get a “job.”
There are few statistics about the e-waste industry, but a United Nations report from February this year confirms how mountains of hazardous waste from electronic products are growing exponentially in developing countries. The report states that India will have 500 percent more e-waste from old computers in 2020 than in 2007, and 18 times more old mobile phones (informal estimates, however, peg these figures at 900 percent and 25 times more). A recent investigation revealed that much of the electronics turned over for recycling in the US ends up in Asia, with little or no regard for environmental or worker health and safety. Cheap labour is the primary reason, coupled with little or negligent regulation.
The risks to those who handle the cast-offs are clear to
TK Joshi, who heads the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi. He has studied 250 people working in the city as recyclers and dismantlers over 12 months and found that almost all of them suffered from breathing problems such as asthma and bronchitis. “We found dangerously high levels—10 to 20 times higher than normal—of lead, mercury and chromium in blood and urine samples,” he reveals.
“All these have a detrimental effect on the respiratory, urinary and digestive systems, besides crippling immunity and causing cancer.”
Toxic metals and poisons enter workers’ bloodstreams during the laborious manual extraction process, and when equipment is crudely treated to collect tiny quantities of precious metals. “The recovery of metals like gold, platinum, copper and lead uses caustic soda and concentrated acids. Workers dip their hands in poisonous chemicals for hours. They are also exposed to fumes of highly concentrated acid,” says Joshi.
Safety gear such as gloves, face masks and ventilation fans are virtually unheard-of, and workers—at least 35 percent of them children, according to one estimate—have little idea of what they’re handling. “All the workers we’ve surveyed are unaware of the dangers they are exposed to. They are all illiterate and desperate for employment. Their choice is clear—either die of hunger or of metal poisoning,” says Joshi. He warns that exposure to e-waste by-products such as cadmium and lead could result in a slow, painful death. “They can’t sleep or walk. They are wasted by the time they reach 35-40 years of age and are incapable of working,” he adds.
There is no concrete estimate of how many people die from e-waste poisoning as workers who fall ill generally migrate back to their villages when they can no longer earn a living. “The irony is that the amount of gold and platinum they extract are traces—fractions of a milligram,” says Priti Mahesh, programme coordinator of the New Delhi-based Toxic Link environment group. “Computers, televisions and mobile phones are most dangerous because they have high levels of lead, mercury and cadmium, and they have short life-spans so are discarded more,” she said. Look around you: Everyone you know—including you—has probably changed their handset at least twice in the last 24 months, and upgraded their computer, laptop, keyboard or old-world monitor in the last six. With this rapid turnaround, it’s inevitable that old junk lands somewhere.
The Indian government has proposed a new law that will regulate e-waste but, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), any legislation is likely to miss the army of informal workers such as brothers Asif and Salim. “The proposed law says only big firms should be in the business of recycling and dismantling,” says KPS Yadav, a CSE campaigner. “This is not going to work because the informal sector already has a cheap system of collection, disposal or recycling in place—so people will use that.”
As far as Joshi is concerned, the sight of children working in appalling conditions taking computers apart is as potent a symbol of India’s deep troubles as ragpickers sorting through stinking household rubbish in acres of dumps. As much as you bitch about cleanliness and recycling, it is a social commitment that few of us are willing to make. “India needs laws that protect workers’ interests, especially the vulnerable and children. We have to learn from the West about workers’ rights,” he says. It is estimated that 75 percent of electronic items are stored due to uncertainty about how to manage them. So, junk lies unattended in houses, offices or warehouses, or end up in mega-dumps. Land-filled computer waste produces contaminated by-products, which pollute groundwater. Acids and sludge obtained by melting computer chips—the job that’s undertaken by children like Asif—are openly disposed of on the ground, which causes the acidification of soil. To add to the problem, these items are usually discarded with other household garbage, which these children collect as well. This toxic cocktail affects their health irreversibly, while also changing the ecological landscape of that particular locality.
Disposal of e-waste, of course, remains the most crippling problem. In the late 1980s, a tightening of environmental regulations in the West led to a dramatic rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Searching for cheaper ways of disposal, “toxic traders” began shipping hazardous waste to developing countries—remember Transporter 3? Countries like India topped the list. Then came the belated outrage, complaints, lawsuits, and evidence. In view of all this, many countries agreed that a global agreement to address the problem was needed. The Basel Convention in February 2010 aimed to tackle the current problem and the potential e-waste disaster waiting to happen. Some progress on issues of providing assistance and guidelines on legal and technical issues, gathering data, and training on proper management of hazardous waste was made.
But real progress will depend on implementation and regulation at source, or at the point of generation in industries, through waste minimization and sustainable product design. The first can be achieved through adoption of inventory management, production-process modifications, and volume reduction, recovery and reuse. At the consumer end of the spectrum, incentive including exchange bonuses, value deals—coupled with stringent fines for misuse—will force people like us to moderate upgrades and think about disposal more seriously. That’s when this marvellous technological revolution will become all-inclusive, especially for children like Asif and others who clean up our sins. And any revolution, in its true sense, is all-inclusive.