E-waste is e-vil

GILES SLADE is the author of the forthcoming book, "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America."

MICROSOFT HAS just invented a niche market between low-functioning personal digital assistants and high-functioning laptops. Enter the Origami, a new class of ultra-mobile personal computers intended to become as indispensable and ubiquitous as cellphones.

Soon millions of these gizmos will join outmoded iPods, BlackBerrys, PlayStations, MP3 players, GameBoys and cellphones in the mountain of electronic trash that threatens to poison us all.

Hyperbole? Hardly. The waste from electronic devices contains hazardous ingredients classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “permanent biological toxins,” including lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, mercury and brominated flame retardants. When burned, many release dioxins. In landfills, they seep into the groundwater and never break down.

Between now and 2009 -- in addition to all of our portable electronic toys -- more than 550 million computers and analog TVs will be thrown away in the continental United States. Ugly as it sounds, the U.S. currently has no way to deal with the toxins contained in this cyber-trash. We need to send it elsewhere. We are already sending it there.


But the Basel Convention restricts international trade in hazardous waste, so all shipments of electronic waste from the United States to developing countries are technically illegal. In a strategy born of desperation, Japan and the United States are now proposing to reopen the global trade in toxic waste. Meanwhile, American exporters rely on a shifty menu of strategies to export our toxic garbage. These include incorrectly labeling container shipments of e-waste; transshipping the stuff through neutral ports; bribing customs officials in destination countries; bribing local politicians in the areas where the obsolete devices are disassembled; and shifting disassembly operations frequently throughout the developing world.

Guiyu, a rural area of China northeast of Hong Kong, has become a world capital of toxic disassembly, employing more than 100,000 people. The Oregon-based Basel Action Network published a report exposing how polyvinyl chlorides were being burned openly, and how precious metals were being melted out of computers using highly corrosive acids that were dumped untreated into the Lianjiang River. The group documented how toxins from the e-waste had damaged the lungs, kidneys and central and peripheral nervous systems of Guiyu workers. The toxins are also believed to increase the risk of asthma, bronchitis, birth defects and digestive and lymphatic cancer.

Recently, thugs hired by these operations have kicked foreign reporters and activists out of Guiyu. But similarly crude disassembly operations have been discovered in Karachi, Pakistan; Chittagong, Bangladesh; and at the Mandoli recycling hub of East Delhi. Tons of e-waste have been dumped along the Asian rivers and irrigation canals in rice-growing areas. Well water in some places is undrinkable.

As grass-roots organizations have exposed illegal disassembly operations in Asia, shady “recyclers” have now set up in and around the port cities of Africa. In Nigeria, for example, 500 containers of used computers come to Lagos each month despite a 1988 decree prohibiting all imports of hazardous wastes without special authorization. Local experts say up to 75% of the stuff is impossible to reuse or uneconomic to repair. So it’s dumped or burned.

Must the developed world get rid of its trash in this way? Is there no affordable alternative to exporting our toxins and poisoning the developing world?

As of January, Maine joined California and Maryland in requiring electronic manufacturers to collect and disassemble discarded TVs and computer screens, removing the toxins for recycling or safe disposal. More than 20 other states are considering such legislation. But a mishmash of state laws would be far less effective than a single federal law. Congress now has four e-waste bills pending but no political will to enact tough legislation. Meanwhile, the problem is metastasizing, fueled by our insatiable desire for digital goodies. If Origami sells as many units as the iPod, 40 million of them will eventually be junked.

Bill Gates, the developing world’s biggest philanthropist, could help stop the poisoning by making sure that Origamis and other products are manufactured in such a way that their toxic components can be removed easily and recycled. What would happen if Gates started a cleanup program for e-waste sites from Guiyu to Lagos? Maybe then everybody could buy an Origami, worry-free, and Microsoft could stop being the world’s favorite bad guy.