The eWaste Nightmare – Ghana, China, Vietnam, the List Goes On…

21 07 2009
From: Flickr, 2009

From: Flickr, 2009

Ever wondered what happens to that old computer that you so responsibly do away with? Well, its highly likely that you should be holding some major companies accountable for their misdeeds and misinformation about computer disposal. Contrary to what you are told, electronic waste is often not recycled locally or in an environmentally responsible manner.

From: Flickr, 2009

From: Flickr, 2009

Recently, a group of graduate students from the University of British Columbia travelled to Ghana to investigate the world of electronic waste. What they found, was more than disconcerting. On the outskirts of Ghana’s largest city sits Agbogbloshie, a wasteland of the first world’s electronic goods. Here also lies the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth, filled with old computers and their contaminants. It is reported that hundreds of millions of tons of eWaste end up here every year.

Many of the local boys work within this dumping ground, scrounging for scraps of metal by burning the plastic away from the body of the computer. There is no method of protection from the fumes either, they breath burning plastic every day.

How did things end up this way? A few years ago, Ghanaians welcomed truckloads of second hand computers, donations to help them bridge the technology gap. It didn’t take long though for corporations to see the loophole here though. More and more truckloads – boatloads – of used computers were shipped here. Western companies found that they could label their garbage computers as ‘donations’ and send the non-working computers to Ghana to dispose of them.

Now here is another risk that affects us in the west. Hard drives from these computers are never truly erased. Thus, our personal information is essentially up for sale at extremely cheap prices at Ghanaian markets. One purchased hard drive exposed credit card information, another wedding photos, a third a $22 million dollar government contract from the United States.

When the university group tries to track the disposal from a British Columbia recycler, they are informed by an employee that:

“What they literally do is dump it into a blast furnace and it burns it all up; and all they get out of it is a bunch of ash and some of the precious metal. Everything else gets consumed, burnt. And that’s an actual fact.”

From: Flickr, 2009

From: Flickr, 2009

After taking note of the serial number on the shipping container that contains computer waste, they track it to Hong Kong. Certainly not local. It turns out that the souther Chinese city of Guiyu has been built entirely around the eWaste trade. Miles and miles of computer monitors, hardware, other electronics line the streets. Guiyu is a dirty secret of the trade. Behind closed doors, women burn cicuit boards to find traces of gold, all the while breathing the lead solder fumes.

What is one of the largest reasons that eWaste trade flourishes in China? They ship so many containers of goods to North America that would all normall come back empty. It’s just easy to load them up with our crap and exploit their own workers to make a profit. Our overconsumption of Chinese goods coupled with their lack of humanitarianism equals one very polluted world of electronic waste.  And where do you go if regulations are too restrictive in China? Down to Vietnam.

In India, barrels of acid used to strip circuit boards are dumped into the sewer and products are burned in the open air despite Indian laws against this practice. Workers wear no protective masks or gloves. The owner of one of these scrap yards says, “If your country keeps sending us the material, our business will be good.”

There is some shred of hope though. Occassionally, you may stumble upon an honest-to-goodness electronic recycler. Do I know of any? Not at all. It would be best to do some research in your area to find one. Oh, and make sure that hard drive is destroyed before tossing it away.

Treehugger article and UBC videos: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/an-e-waste-nightmare-in-ghana-video.php?dcitc=th_rss 

PBS video: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html

Basel Action Network: http://www.ban.org/ban_news/ewaste_ignored_031228.html

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One response

14 04 2010
Samantha

We have to do something!

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