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Illegal e-waste filling landfills

The annual quantum of dangerous-toxic junk or the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) generated is going to be about 65.4 million tonnes in 2017, as illegal dumping in landfills continues.

On an average, seven kilogrammes of e-waste is generated per person annually. This is a global jump of 33% in just five years as of 2012. Currently, the annual accumulation is about 50 million tonnes. The grave concern over shipment of toxic garbage from the developed nations to developing and underdeveloped countries arises, as it contributes a considerable amount to the landfills.

Interpol has set out a global hunt to illegally export of e-waste to countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other nations dotting Africa, Latin America and Asia. WEEE includes old-style televisions, CRT monitors containing lead and phosphorous pentachloride, printed circuit boards contain arsenic, cadmium, mercury and bromides, and fridges contain CFCs. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47% of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.

Interpol and its partners have launched the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project in September 2013 all over the world including India. Buried in landfill, broken up improperly or burnt, these toxins gets exposed to the air, enters into the soil and water table. As the e-waste also contains small amounts of copper, gold, silver and palladium, they have values despite being thrown away.

The UN University, UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, WEEE Forum and Cross Border Research Association are assisting Interpol in this endeavour.

Meanwhile, the StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem), a world-wide initiative supported by the United Nations University, has said that the governments of developing countries have not taken up seriously to the radioactive e-waste illegally being dumped in their landfills.

Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of StEP, has said that StEP has just created a global map, based on 2012 data from 184 nations, to show the amount of e-waste generated in each country, its illegal shipment to other countries and all other facts regarding e-waste. Kuehr had been the Head of the United Nations University Institute of Sustainability & Peace Operating Unit SCYCLE. StEP is providing its services to manage and recycle the discarded mobile phones, laptops, televisions and computer monitors. The USA annually produces the world’s largest quantum of e-waste of about 9.4 million tonnes followed by China at 7.3 million tonnes. Per capita e-waste generation is highest in Qatar: 63kg per person: nine times the world average. A total of 9 million tonnes of e-waste is scrapped in the European Union every year, while Britain contributes an estimated 1.5 million tonnes to it.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of USA also helped the StEP to create the latest report on e-waste generation and shipments to other countries. Mobile phones, televisions and computer monitors are the most common type of e-waste shipped from the United States. Some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. When the millions of computers purchased around the world every year (183 million in 2004) become obsolete they leave behind lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes. In the US alone, some 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year. In the EU the volume of e-waste is expected to increase by 3-5% a year. Developing countries are expected to triple their output of e-waste by 2010 (Source: UNEP).

Most e-waste arriving at landfills in the developing countries without clear rules for dealing with this type of waste is treated as general refuse, and so heavy metals, dioxins and other polluting and even carcinogenic compounds are released during its processing.

Referring to India, the Greenpeace said: “We have found a growing e-waste trade problem in India. About 25,000 workers are employed at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where 10,000-20,000 tonnes of e-waste is handled each year, 25% of this being computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.”

In many countries entire communities, including children, earn their livelihoods by scavenging metals, glass and plastic from old computers. To extract the small quantity of gold, capacitors are melted down over a charcoal fire. The plastic on the electrical cords is burnt in barrels to expose the copper wires. All in all each computer yields about US $6 worth of material (Basel Action Network). Not very much when you consider that burning the plastic sends dioxin and other toxic gases into the air. And the large volume of worthless parts are dumped nearby, allowing the remaining heavy metals to contaminate the area, according to UNEP. The E-waste recycling and disposal operations found in China, India, and Pakistan are extremely polluting and likely to be very damaging to human health. Examples include open burning of plastic waste, exposure to toxic solders, river dumping of acids, and widespread general dumping.

In the 1990s, governments in the EU, Japan and some US states set up e-waste ‘recycling’ systems. But many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or with the hazardous nature of the e-waste. Therefore, they began exporting the problem to developing countries where laws to protect workers and the environment are inadequate or not enforced. It is also cheaper to ‘recycle’ waste in developing countries; the cost of glass-to-glass recycling of computer monitors in the US is ten times more than in China.

Demand in Asia for electronic waste began to grow when scrap yards found they could extract valuable substances such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold, during the recycling process. A mobile phone, for example, is 19% copper and eight percent iron.

The problem continues!

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