e-Waste : Little Known Truths

I chanced upon a Guardian story of May 2008 entitled ‘Breeding toxins from dead PCs‘ that described how children are dying to clear up the developed world’s discarded computers:

Thousands of discarded computers from western Europe and the US arrive in the ports of west Africa every day, ending up in massive toxic dumps where children burn and pull them apart to extract metals for cash.

The dumping of the developed world’s electronic trash, or e-waste, is in direct contravention of international legislation and is causing serious health problems for inhabitants of the shanty towns that have sprung up amid the smouldering dumps in Lagos and Accra.

Campaigners believe unscrupulous scrap merchants are illegally dumping millions of tonnes of dangerous waste on the developing world under the guise of exporting it for use in schools and hospitals. They are calling for better policing of the ban on exports of e-waste, which can release lead, mercury and other dangerous chemicals.

Now, it’s not uncommon to read press articles of this nature, from time to time.  However, I was most concerned to uncover some little-known facts about Technology and its relation to the environment and to society at large:

The illegal trade in e-waste is highly lucrative. It is possible to extract more gold out of a tonne of electronic circuitry than from a tonne of gold-bearing rock. But illegal dumping is putting at risk charities and other organisations that donate second-hand equipment to the developing world.

… When you look at the whole product lifetime of a computer 75% of the environmental damage is done before the computer is switched on for the first time,” he pointed out. “It is the production, the mining, the factories producing the kit and the use of toxic materials – that is where the environmental damage is done. So if we do not make the producer responsible for dealing with these environmental issues we are never going to get a redesign of computers; we are never going to get computers that are produced in a more environmentally friendly way.

The Guardian article raises a number of questions for which there are no easy answers…