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India: an E-waste dumping ground ?
by Jean-Baptiste LUSIGNAN & Simon CARLI

E-waste is a global environmental hazard. Each year, about 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes of discarded electronic equipment is exported from developed countries to India’s scrap yards in Meerut, Bangalore or Mumbaï, to get dismantled by poorly-protected workers.

More often than not, electronic devices do not age well. Most of them become e-waste before they turn two years old, whether they are out of order or simply not up-to-date anymore. E-waste is not your ordinary trash. Recycling clapped-out and old-fashioned computers is a lucrative business. When dismantled, computers release hidden treasures such as gold, platinum and copper. However, those elements are usually found in composite form, which means that they need to be salvaged using dangerous chemicals such as strong acids. This ought to be done by specialised workers with proper equipment, but seldom is.

Given the cost involved in recycling e-waste, countries like Canada and the United States regularly ship obsolete computers all the way to Asia. It is estimated that about 80 percent of the e-waste generated in the US goes to backyard recyclers in India, China and Pakistan. There are a few modern recycling factories in developing countries, but they are thin on the ground: India, for instance, has only one, near New Delhi. But most of the time, e-waste is processed by low-paid workers in small, local businesses. They sometimes work in the open or on the floor of street stalls without any protection save a paper mask that will not prevent serious damage to their health. There are about 25,000 such workers in Delhi alone. According to K. K. Shajaban, principal consultant at the India Institute of Material Management in Bangalore: "although the waste trade sector in India is known as part of the informal sector, it has a system that is highly organised with extensive co-ordination in an established network."* Some companies knowingly burn monitors, keyboards, cables and toner cartridges in the open along with garbage. This releases huge amounts of toxic metals into the atmosphere; some materials such as cadmium, mercury and chromium cannot be recycled at all.

Unregulated recycling by inadequately-protected workers is not only an environmental and health problem. It is also a moral and political issue. E-waste is making its way from all over the world into Asia by "underground" routes too. Donations for instance are a case in point. Many irresponsible industrialized countries claim to help India get wired by giving away computers well past their sell-by date. But these charitable gifts are often less benevolent and generous than they seem. They enable many states and corporations to dispose of inconvenient trash tax-free while respecting international law.

In the last few years, the amount of e-waste generated globally every year has skyrocketed from 20 to 50 million tonnes. Given the ever-diminishing lifespan of electronic devices, the electronic srap-heap is bound to grow faster and faster as developing countries increase their own production. Currently Asia discards about 12 million tonnes a year.

Sources: "Hello? Steve? This is Green my Apple calling on the iPhone", 15 January 2007.
* "The e-waste problem," 17 August 2005.
"India to have e-waste recycling plans soon," 24 September 2005.
"Now a cemetary for dead PCs in Bangalore," 08 October 2004.
Official e-waste take-back website
Related information on Wikipedia

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