June 19, 2008 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
If there's one upheaval that's had the biggest global impact over the past two decades, it's the technology revolution. Driven by more efficient, smaller and cheaper microchips, technology has wowed the world and changed everyone's lives. But a dangerous new waste stream, electronic waste, is growing up alongside the proliferation of electronic products.
Environmentalists say that besides global warming, electronic waste, or "e-waste," is the most threatening environmental problem in the world today. Mounting global sales of electrical and electronic products are generating an equally imposing amount of toxic waste that's too complicated to process.
Although the exact amount is unknown, the United Nations estimates that roughly 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, comprising more than 5 percent of all municipal solid waste. Alarmingly an estimated 70 percent of e-waste ends up either illegally dumped or crudely processed in many of the poorer Asian and African countries, where workers in e-waste scrap yards are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals that are byproducts of deconstructing components. These chemicals also pollute water, soil and air.
Poorer countries in Asia, such as India, Vietnam, Philippines and some impoverished regions in China, are turning out to be the dumping grounds for e-waste. What's even more alarming is rich countries such as the United States, Canada and some European Union countries - the world's largest generators of e-waste - have adopted only small or halfhearted measures to deal with this looming problem. Critics say that the United States and Canada have taken woefully inadequate steps to stop e-waste dumping in developing and poor countries where import laws are full of loopholes. While other developed countries in the European Union (EU) and Japan impose restrictions on e-waste exports and mandate that manufacturers take back their end-of-life products, critics claim there's no monitoring or control on adherence to those rules.
"The issue of exporting [hazardous e-waste by] countries like the U.S.A and Canada has not been resolved yet," said Ibrahim Shafii, from the Secretariat of the Basel Convention, the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous wastes. The convention controls trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal.
"The U.S.A. and Canada are still exporting computer waste to other developing countries because under the laws of these countries, discarded computers and mobile phones are not considered as wastes and therefore they are not controlled," said Shafii.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), which seeks to ensure that the Basel Convention norms are followed, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) are two U.S.-based environmental organizations that have been trumpeting the e-waste problem in reports such as Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia published in 2002. "Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the e-waste have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve - exporting the e-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia," according to the report.
Indeed, to get a sense of the magnitude of the high-tech revolution's dirty little secret - the mounting volume of e-waste - all you need to do is peek in the narrow lanes of East Delhi, or visit districts in Guiyu, Nanyang and Taizhou in China, or the Sher Khan Market in Karachi, Pakistan. Small boys, young women and even grown men can be found tearing apart personal computers, monitors and other electronic hardware with their bare hands and sifting through the components. The reusable parts are separated out for use in refurbished electronics products, and the rest is sorted to extract glass from the cathode-ray tubes as well as valuable gold and silver traces.
The remaining waste is broken down and incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids that spew foul