Reality Bytes – Hi-tech products pollute scrap yards in Asia

Feature story - August 18, 2005
NEW DELHI, India — Got your hands on a brand new cellphone, computer, wide-screen TV? If yes, do you know where the old one went? In all probability, to one of many ‘recycling yards’; usually small-scale operations carried out in cramped brick rooms, on rooftops, in narrow lanes and dusty workshops tucked out of sight. A Greenpeace report released today provides a snapshot of the electronic waste recycling industry, and the nature of contamination it exposes workers and the environment too.

A boy winces at the smoke rising from the computer motherboards being melted over open fires in a recycling yard in Delhi.

The Greenpeace report, 'Toxic Tech: recycling electronic wastes in China and India' conclusively proves that toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, are released into the workplace and in many cases, into the surrounding environment, during each stage of the e-waste recycling process. From workers tearing components apart with bare hands, to circuit boards being dunked in acid baths, the impacts are not limited to the narrow spaces of the workplace.

"Samples collected by Greenpeace from and around recycling facilities at Seelampur, Zafarabad, Shastri Park, Mayapuri , Buradi, Kantinagar and Brijgang establish that heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, acids and organic contaminants were being released to the environment due to inadequate waste management practices," said Ramapati Kumar, Toxic-Trade Campaigner, Greenpeace India.

The report release follows close on the European Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) coming into effect on 13th August 2005. The directive, which regulates the handling of e-waste in the EU region, has yet to be implemented in many EU countries.

According to Dr. Kevin Brigden, a Greenpeace scientist, who collected and analysed the samples, "Concentrations of lead in dust samples collected from some workshops in China were hundreds of times higher than typical levels of household dusts. The levels of lead in dusts collected from similar Indian workshops were approximately 5-20 times background levels. The data reinforces the need for the electronics industry to eliminate, at source, the use of harmful substances in their products."

The good news is that companies are beginning to respond, albeit slowly. Samsung, Nokia, Sony and Sony Ericsson have made commitments to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals such as PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in their products. LG Electronics is the latest to join the list of companies in committing to substitute these harmful substances with safer alternatives This clearly proves that it is possible to make electronic equipment without the use of these hazardous substances and still remain profitable.

Other companies like Dell, IBM/Lenovo, HP, Siemens, Acer, Toshiba, Panasonic, Fujitsu-Siemens and Apple have failed to commit to a similar substitution of harmful substances.

If you'd like information on manufacturers who have substituted hazardous chemicals with safe alternatives, check out the Greenpeace guide on how to 'Substitute with Style'.

Now that clean products are becoming available, the next time you're tempted to reach for the latest gadget to hit the shelves, choose wisely! So that the planet may live well.

View the scientific report

Visit the e-waste campaign

View the e-waste video

View the e-waste in India slideshow

See the related Press Release

Read LG takes up the challenge...