Old Computers Polluting Asian Water Supplies

A new report shows that most of the old computer parts taken to California recycling centers are shipped to China, India, or Pakistan, and buried in rice fields or dumped into irrigation canals.

This report is based on a recent investigation by an international coalition of environmental organizations: Basel Action Network (BAN) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) — with support from Toxics Link India, Greenpeace China and SCOPE (Pakistan). Their efforts have produced Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.

The investigation uncovered an entire area known as Guiyu in Quangdong Province, surrounding the Lianjiang River just 4 hours drive northeast of Hong Kong where about 100,000 poor migrant workers are employed to break apart and process obsolete computers imported primarily from North America. The workers were found to be using 19th century technologies to clean up 21st century wastes.

The operations involve men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved in operations which include open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards, and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes. The investigative team witnessed many tons of the e-wastes simply being dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. Already the pollution in Guiyu has become so devastating that well water is no longer drinkable, and water for the entire population has to be trucked in from about 20 miles away.

"We found a cyber-age nightmare," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of BAN. "They call this recycling, but it’s really dumping by another name. Yet to our horror, we further discovered that rather than banning it, the United States government is actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated in the U.S. daily."

BAN referred to the fact that the United States is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention — a United Nations environmental treaty which has adopted a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the worlds most developed countries to more naive developing countries. Further, the U.S. has actually exempted toxic E-waste from its own laws governing exports, simply because the material was claimed to be destined for recycling.

BAN and SVTC are calling on the United States to follow Europe’s example and immediately implement the global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the United States to developing countries and likewise to solve the E-waste problem upstream by mandating that the electronics industry institute take-back recycling programs, toxic input phase-outs and green design for long-life, upgradeability and ease of recycling.

"Consumers in the U.S. have been the principal beneficiaries of the high-tech revolution and we simply can’t allow the resulting high environmental price to be pushed off onto others," said Ted Smith, executive director of SVTC. "Rather than sweeping our E-waste crisis out the backdoor by exporting it to the poor of the world, we have got to address it square in the face and solve it at home, in this country, at its manufacturing source."

Basel Action Network (BAN) is a global network of activists working for global environmental justice and against trade in toxic wastes, toxic technologies and toxic products. (www.ban.org)

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is a 20 year community-based coalition that advocates for cleaner production, and sustainable occupational and environmental health practices within the electronics industry. (www.svtc.org)

For a copy of the full report, visit the either of the above websites.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC)

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