Pulling the plug on dirty electronics

Feature story - May 24, 2005
GENEVA, Switzerland — What happens to your mobile or computer when you throw it away? Did you know it could end up dumped in Asia and scrapped by hand in appalling conditions? This shouldn't be happening, so we are pressuring one of the biggest bad guys, Hewlett-Packard, to come clean -- by delivering a truckload of its own electronic waste to its doorstep.

A Chinese child sits amongst a pile of wires and e-waste. Children can often be found dismantling e-waste containing many hazardous chemicals known to be potentially very damaging to children's health.

Because our mobile phones, computers and other electronic products are made using toxic ingredients, workers at production sites are at risk of exposure and the products cannot be recycled safely when they are discarded.

Many are routinely, and often illegally, shipped as waste from Europe, US and Japan to Asia because it is cheaper and easier to dump the problem on poor countries that have low environmental standards than to tackle it at home.

Conditions where electronic waste (e-waste) is scrapped in southern China are truly shocking. One of our scientists, Kevin Brigden, who has visited his fair share of the world's toxic hotspots, described the scene: "The conditions in these yards are horrific. In Guiyu, southeast China, I found acid baths leaching into streams. They were so acidic they could dissolve a coin in just hours. Many of the chemicals used in electronics are dangerous and can damage people even at very low levels of exposure."

We are conducting ongoing investigations into scrap yards in India and China, where we have found people taking the e-waste apart by hand and being exposed to a nasty cocktail of dangerous chemicals.

Take a trip through the electronics lifecycle to discover why it's a problem and what can be done about it:


Why Hewlett-Packard?

Taking toxic chemicals out of products makes reuse and recycling of electronic products safer, easier and cheaper. This is the first step in tackling the problem of e-waste.

We have asked all the top mobile phone and computer companies worldwide to clean up their act. Samsung, Sony, Sony Ericsson and Nokia have already taken a first step by committing to eliminate toxic flame retardants and PVC plastic from some of their products.

But Hewlett Packard has made no such committment, nor have Apple, Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens, IBM, LG, Motorola, Panasonic, or Toshiba. At a major technology expo in Beijing we built a statue using the companies' e-waste collected from scrap yards in China to demonstrate the problem these companies are causing.

Once toxic chemicals have been eliminated from products, manufacturers should take full life cycle responsibility for their products and, once they reach the end of their useful life, take their goods back for re-use, safe recycling or disposal. This is what we are campaigning for: to turn back the toxic tide of e-waste.

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