Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where Do All The Dead Computers Go?

March 16, 2006: Heaps of electronic waste lie at a dumping site in Guiyu, China.

This is what some sections of the streets look like in Guiyu, China.

For five years, environmentalists and the media have worked to bring the dangers both to the health of the Chinese workers who dismantle most of the world’s junked electronics and the dangers to the environment this “industry” promotes to the public's attention.

Guiyu has become known as the heartland of “e-waste” disposal and the problem is being compounded by China’s own contribution to the problem.

There is a very impressive sounding international treaty in place (?) that is always pointed to as the “be all and end all” when policy makers are taken to task about this obvious disregard for human and environmental health.

This 1989 treaty is the Basel Convention (Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal). This treaty was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations; and, specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to lesser- developed countries (LDCs). For some reason, the treaty does not address the movement of radioactive waste. The Convention was also intended to minimize the amount as well as the toxicity of wastes generated, to ensure their environmentally-sound management as closely as possible to the source of generation. (Isn’t there somewhere closer to the US that could handle these wastes other than China, India and Africa?) There was also supposed to be a commitment to assist the lesser-developed countries in environmentally-sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate (and dumping our waste on them, helps them how?)

The Basel Convention sounds good – on paper – and; that’s exactly where it remains: on paper. The United States has not ratified it; so, it remains virtually useless - at least on our end.

This doen't seem to matter much since the U.S. government doesn't ban or even monitor e-waste exports. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has no certification process for electronic-waste recyclers. Any company can claim it recycles waste, even if all it does is export it and face no inspection, no forced compliance to the rules.

Imports slip into China despite a Chinese ban and Beijing's ratification of the Basel Convention due to fancy legal mumbo jumbo. China does allow the import of plastic waste and scrap metal which many recyclers use as an excuse to send old electronics there.

And though the U.S increasingly requires that electronics be sent to collection and recycling centers, this does not necessarily mean that will be recycled in an environmentally-safe manner. Even from these centers, American firms can and do send the e-waste legally abroad because Congress still hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention (remember?).

Guess what’s at the root of all this evil? None other than...everyone say it with me...the love of money. Funny how these four words keep popping up again and again, isn't it?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is ten times cheaper to export e-waste than to dispose of it at home. To recycle a computer on American soil costs the owner of the computer(s) approximately $25.00 a computer to have it done in an environmentally-safe manner. However, if you have a lot of computers, brokers who ship computers overseas will come to bid on your computers – they will pay you. Imagine: you are a country hospital that needs a new expensive piece of equipment to better serve your patients. You also need new computers. You can pay $25.00 a computer to have a company recycle them or you can be paid real money (that can be put toward that life-saving piece of machinery) by a broker to have them taken away.

The reason it is so cheap to ship this e-waste overseas is simple. Labor in the dump in Guiyi or ones in India, Pakistan or Africa is so cheap it is actually cost-effective (read: extremely profitable to a few) to try to salvage every last screw or bit of silver.

To make electronics manufacturers accountable for their obsolete products, several organizations believe a recycling fee should be charged at the time of the computer’s purchase — much like a bottle deposit — to fund clean and efficient recycling programs.

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