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When PCs pollute

E-waste poses health risks in developing world, and gear makers have to own up to the problem, activists say.

Michael Singer Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Singer
5 min read
Dust on the floor of workshops in India and China has a lot to say about the unintended afterlife of PCs and television sets cast off by consumers and businesses in the United States.

A new report from Greenpeace International takes a close look at the presence of toxic metals such as lead and chemicals, including flame retardants, in places where obsolete electronic gear is disassembled and often scavenged for its pieces. Its conclusions: E-waste recycling work is dangerously unregulated and further evidence that electronics makers need to take more responsibility for the gear they produce.

"Both wastes and hazardous chemicals used in the processing (of spent electronics) are commonly handled with little regard for the health and safety of the work force or surrounding communities and with no regard for the environment," the report says. "Overall, the result is severe contamination."


What's new:
A new Greenpeace International report identifies problems with the ways obsolete electronic gear is handled by recycling businesses overseas, where regulations are few and workplace and environmental hazards are significant.

Bottom line:
Environmentalists are urging lawmakers to implement "producer takeback" programs that would make manufacturers responsible for handling obsolete gear in an environmentally sound way. Many takeback-program advocates argue that a national system would be the most effective to address e-waste recycling.

More stories on this topic

In conjunction with the report's publication Wednesday, environmental activists in the U.S. are urging state legislators to take action through "producer takeback" programs instead of upfront consumer fees. Electronics makers, they say, need to be held responsible for managing their products even after they go out of service, and export of e-waste to developing countries should be banned.

"What we really need is an effective national and global system. If the producers have responsibility for their products at the end of their life, then they have an incentive to design them to be less toxic in the first place," said Ted Smith, the chair of the national Computer TakeBack Campaign and senior strategist for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which promotes responsible electronics recycling.

Producer takeback bills started in Maine in 2004 and are up for review in many states including Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Washington. The takeback programs, which put the burden on manufacturers for handling end-of-life electronics, contrast with California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act, which requires consumers to pay recycling fees at the time of purchase. Smith said the takeback programs are preferable because they encourage companies to comply through a method of peer pressure and competitive advantage.

Despite the best efforts of legislators and environmental groups, however, Smith said there is still no guarantee that products purchased in North America and Europe would not end up in a pile of garbage somewhere in China or India.

Hewlett-Packard, which has long had recycling programs in place, says it vets its recycling partners for socially and environmentally responsible practices, but agrees with the notion that not all scrap electronics can be policed.

Photos: E-waste in China

"There is a need for companies and governments to have a recycling infrastructure," said John Frey, who manages corporate environmental strategy for HP. "When these materials aren't appropriately handled at end of life, less-desirable outcomes occur like those being pointed out in Asia."

The European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive has been going into effect in a number of countries--not without a few bumps. In Ireland this month, for instance, the Labour Party charged that retailers have used the directive as an opportunity to hike up prices disproportionately. Market researcher Gartner has estimated that legal changes could add $60 to the price of PCs in Europe this year.

Doing the dirty work
Small dismantling units in the New Delhi region handle about 40 percent of electronic waste in India, and nearly half of this is illegally imported from the U.S. and Europe, according to Greenpeace India's Ramapati Kumar. Much of the waste is sent in by recyclers under the pretext of "reuse and charity" and sometimes in the form of "mixed metal scrap" that can be imported under Indian rules.

Kumar said products of all major gear makers like HP, IBM, Dell and Toshiba can be found in backyard recycling sites. This shows, he said, that products taken back by these corporations under their recycling programs eventually land in developing countries through traders and recyclers in the U.S. and Europe. The reason for that, he said, is cost--it costs $20 to recycle a PC in the U.S. while it costs $2 in India.

Those companies, though, generally take back PCs and other gear from a range of manufacturers, not just their own. Recycling services are also offered by large retailers and by private contractors.

The situation overseas is compounded in some regions where corruption is a factor. Smith recounted a story from a recent conference where a U.S. official with the Environmental Protection Agency noted a $100 bill on top of a shipping container full of computer waste, which would pass through the checkpoint with no questions asked.

To give a sense of the overall scale of the problem, Greenpeace cited a UN Environment Program report, which found that between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste is produced worldwide annually. In China alone, according to the UN report, 4 million PCs are discarded each year.

HP said it is on track to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics by the end of 2007, with the count having started last year. Dell has said that during its fiscal 2004, it collected 35 million pounds of computer gear for recycling.

The Greenpeace study in March 2005 took more than 70 samples of dust, soil, river sediment and groundwater from sites in the area of Guiyu, in China's Guangdong province, and in the suburbs of New Delhi.

It found that the heavy metals most commonly found in elevated levels included lead and tin, used in solder; copper, from wires and cables; cadmium, from batteries and solder joints; and antimony, from flame retardants.

In the Chinese workshops, the dust collected was found to have "concentrations of lead (that) were hundreds of time higher than typical levels for indoor dusts in other parts of the world." In India, traces of metals such as lead, tin and copper were found in quantities five to 20 times higher than background levels.

Whether legislation in the U.S. and Europe is the answer to the problem is an open question. IBM says it is generally supportive of the California approach. HP's Frey said the main thing he's looking for is a "consistent," nationwide plan, rather than state-by-state mandates.

"We've really tried for a more national approach," Frey said. "That would be more effective for us, versus 50 different ways."

CNET News.com's Jonathan Skillings and Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK contributed to this report.