Houston In India, ACORN organizes and supports recyclers of all descriptions in the informal economy. The most lucrative livelihoods in this field are the workers handling electronic waste, or e-waste as it’s called, from discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, and the like. The exchange in trade there is in the precious metals, including gold and copper. Having watched the sorting after pickup without gloves, aprons, or shoes and the melting process nearby in Dharavi by tens of workers drenched in sweat with maybe a rag over their mouths, I can guarantee there’s nothing safe or sanitary for the workers in this process. It’s a penny earned on a down payment to an early grave. There are an estimated 25,000 workers in Delhi alone handling 20,000 tons of e-waste. This is big business in India
Part of the reason is that countries like the United States, Canada, and Japan, all big producers of e-waste, have not signed the 1989 Basel Convention controlling the export of hazardous wastes from wealthy countries to poorer ones or the 1995 amendment imposing an outright ban on such trade, so a lot of the mess we make gets shipped all over Asia and Africa where health and safety regulations are virtually nonexistent and hardly enforced. According to the EPA’s best guess, and it seems no one really is certain, we are now producing about 9 million tons of e-waste each year, but only processing about 20% of that domestically for recycling and about the same amount depending on the hardware is being recycled at all with most still headed for incinerators, which is to say the atmosphere while heating up the climate change crisis, or buried in landfills with additional scary and sketchy consequences waiting for us as well.
Philadelphia PA Yard Debris Pickup can help you cleanup and their recyclers may end up with some copper and gold but according to The Economist they are also likely ending up with about 60 other elements from the periodic table including “flame retardants and other nasty chemicals.” “Apart from heavy metals such as lead and mercury, there are quantities of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and polyvinyl chloride to be found.”
We’re still at the front end of a flood of expanding e-waste as well. The EPA estimates e-waste is growing by 8% annually and the 20-50 million tons produced worldwide could double to 100 million tons by 2020, a short five years from now.
Upstream from Asia and Africa, there must be something all of us can do, right? Not much it seems, and the impact will be pretty small. Thinking of my members doing this work in India, I can take old televisions, computers, and whatnot to some reputable recycler and hope for the best, and that might make me feel better than just throwing a broken air conditioner in a garbage can, as I did earlier this week, but, I have to be honest, it’s more hope than a plan. All of the high-tech tools and toys of modernity are great, but if we don’t get a handle on their long afterlife, they may end up taking away as much later as they are giving to our lives now. Our policy can’t simply be to heck with our poor neighbors and the devil take the hindmost.