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05.09.2009 - 04:03PM
By Thomas Kostigen, author of You Are Here
About 80 percent of the electronic waste in the United States is exported, mostly to Third World countries like India. It comes by ship, on tankers filled with used computers, cell phones, televisions, batteries, all kinds of things that contain mercury, lead, and heavy metals that are dangerous to people’s health and the planet.
In India the hazardous waste isn’t treated properly, nor is it disposed of with the right type of environmental consideration. But it’s cheaper to get rid of it here than in the United States.
Toxics Link, an India-based nongovernmental organization that tracks electronic waste (or e-waste) in India, has calculated that it costs about twenty dollars to recycle a personal computer in the United States, whereas unscrupulous Indian importers pay up to fifteen dollars each for them. That means a net gain of thirty-five dollars for a US recycler. By extracting the usable parts and then dumping the rest on backyard scrap-trading outfits, an importer can generate about ten dollars in revenue. Meanwhile, we pawn off our hazardous material onto people who can least afford to have it dropped on their doorsteps.
The two largest nations exporting their e-wastes are the United States and the United Kingdom. According to a recent British Environmental Protection Agency report, Britain shipped out twenty-five thousand tons of e-waste to South Asia in 2005. The United States exports ten times that amount annually. For every PC we buy, we discard one. While about two billion dollars worth of electronic equipment is recycled in the United States, it represents just 11 percent of the e-waste generated. Put into simple terms, the tonnage of e-waste we toss out with the garbage each year is equal to about half a billion laptop computers.
Worldwide, about fifty million tons of electronic waste alone is generated per year, although what is exported isn’t labeled hazardous waste. Waste is considered “hazardous” if it contains corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients. Hazardous waste includes computers, batteries, cell phones, and other products that contain toxic chemicals. It usually goes by ship, and isn’t labeled as waste because it’s largely illegal to ship hazardous waste. Instead, Dr. Kishore Wankhade, the regional coordinator for Toxics Link in Mumbai, says corporations and waste management middlemen will falsely label containers, sometimes even as “charitable goods.” India bans the importing of “waste,” but the business is so profitable that the Indian government is considering changing the language of the law to read “hazardous material.” This would recategorize waste and make it allowable as imported “material.” “Through a not-so-subtle mangling of international definitions for waste, disposal, and safe recycling, the
Indian government has designed a veritable global waste funnel that will ensure that the world’s waste will surge to our shores,” said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link.
“Already, four thousand tons of e-waste is piling up with no systems in place, no collection, no recyclers, or anything,” Kishore says. He points to an old desktop computer of his that sits in a corner. “I’m waiting,” he says. “I want it to be on the first recycling program when it comes.” He admits the computer will likely sit there for years.
It isn’t just India that suffers this plight. In Lagos, Nigeria, there is a landfill site they call Computer Village because it is stacked high with machines from all over the world.
The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works internationally to ban toxic trade, has examined the waste, which isn’t treated or filtered, and found parts from as far away as Los Angeles. Indeed, on its Web site and in a film BAN produced about e-waste, you can clearly see the marked labels of the Los Angeles County School district. BAN says:
There is an ugly underbelly of economic globalization that few wish to talk about. Under the guise of simply utilizing the “competitive advantage” of cheap labor markets in poorer areas of the world, a disproportionate burden of toxic waste, dangerous products, and polluting technologies are currently being exported from rich industrialized countries to poorer developing countries. In effect, rather than being helped to leap-frog over dirty development cycles directly toward clean production methods, developing countries are instead being asked to perpetuate some of the world’s most toxic industries and products and are even asked to become the global dumping ground for much of the world’s toxic wastes.
California and most other states allow the export of hazardous waste. If you’ve tossed out batteries, cameras, lightbulbs, or anything electric that contains toxic chemicals, likely it’s now somewhere in the developing world.
The problems begin when the parts of those electronics begin to decompose. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reports that just one computer can contain hundreds of chemicals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive problems. They are especially dangerous because of their ability to travel long distances through air and water and to accumulate in our bodies and the environment. And that’s why we end up shipping e-waste far, far away to countries halfway around the world. . . .
If e-waste exports are banned, as Greenpeace, BAN, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, among many other groups are lobbying for, we’ll see an acre pileup of computers and electronics more than 1,500 feet high, eclipsing the Empire State Building and causing a health hazard unlike any the United States has ever seen. . . .
“The slum owners come every day in their Mercedes to check on things. The workers [meanwhile] cannot even afford a train ticket,” Sunil, my twenty-two-year-old guide into the bowels of Dharavi tells me. My train ticket cost me thirty cents each way. . . .
Imagine taking four pieces of wood, six feet by six feet and somehow attaching them together with nails, boards, and scrap metals. Then put a piece of corrugated steel on top and you have the basic makings of a structure in Dharavi. Then attach other structures to three of your walls and there are your neighbors. Streets upon streets of mixed and matched shacks like this make up the core of Dharavi.
The outer buildings are where the shops are. There, rag pickers come with piles of different things wrapped in keg-sized burlap sacks or webbed plastic. They sell the junk contents to the slum owners. Light sockets. Paint buckets. Oil drums. Plastic bags. Cardboard. Computers. Plastic cups. Plastic plates. Plastic bottles. Glass of every shape and size. Detergent bottles. Pots. Pans. Soaps. Liquids. Clothes. Dishes. Smoke alarms. Almost anything you can think of ends up here.
Next, workers separate the good stuff from the bad stuff and clean it. The whole bunch then gets put into the reprocessing cycle out of which comes new material. The material is then sold to corporations out of which new products are made . . . and sold to, well, us. Belts, wristwatch straps, and wallets are big exports from Dharavi.
The first stop on this miraculous tour is the computer shop. Stacks of desktops pile high against a wall outside. A worker takes the housing off a monitor and brings it inside to other workers at a shredder. The dust flies as the plastic case is chopped into pieces. These pieces are then put into a press and rolled together. After that, they are burned, smelted, and put through a sort of colander, something like one of those Play-Doh presses that produces strings of material. The plastic strings are then dried and sliced into pellets. Those pellets are sold to companies that use them to make new computer cases, or other products such as toys.
“They sell without regard to the toxins,” Kishore later informs me when I ask him about the plastic products made in Dharavi. “Sometimes the companies will mix that plastic with virgin plastic to lower their production costs. No one knows. They are able to skirt regulations and toxic standards this way. Or else they just go ahead and make new toys of it, even with all that lead, and sell them on the informal market.” . . .
I saw paint cans and oil drums dumped, washed, and banged back into shape, the contents of which drenched the ground all around and near the shops and homes. Sniff an open paint can for just a second and you get an unforgettable toxic whiff. Multiply that by a hundred and then live with it day and night. That is what it is like here with the fluids spilled all over the ground. Slum owners don’t care; they don’t live here. That’s why government interventions might be good.
Also, it might stop knockoff goods from being produced there. Want a laptop case? Select one you like there, and a logo shop next door will slap a Sony label on it.
“Reebok, Adidas, anything you want,” Sunil says.
If you own an item that is forged, likely it began its life in a place like this.
This excerpt has been reprinted from the new book YOU ARE HERE by Thomas Kostigen with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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