Anatomy of two E-waste disasters


Discarded end-of-life electronic and electrical devices, or e-waste, are the fastest growing waste stream in the world. But unlike other waste forms, e-waste involves a complex mix of hazardous, highly toxic materials and economically valuable base metals (copper, tin) and noble metals (gold, silver, palladium). The economic opportunities of extracting these metals make it a desirable commodity. In some developing counties, large landfills have emerged where e-waste is dismantled by the informal sector using rudimentary methods that present significant risks to the environment and the health of local populations.

Guiyu, China
In 2010, China became the largest exporter of electronic products in the world. Paradoxically, the country is also one of the largest importers of electronic waste. With the growing perception that e-waste is a valuable commodity, electronic products that are first produced in China and exported to other countries are later imported back to the country as e-waste through illegal channels. 

Guiyu, a peaceful rice-growing village in northeast Guangdong province, is now known as one of the biggest dumping grounds of electronic waste in the world. In the mid 1990s, trucks of e-waste started arriving into the city for further processing and because the pay was comparatively higher, the people of Guiyu started engaging in recycling this e-waste in order to liberate minerals like aluminum, steel, copper and gold. The city of Guiyu is home to around 5,500 businesses and more than 100,000 people including women and children are solely dependent on e-waste processing to earn a living. 

Several field investigations by authorities including BAN (Basal Action Network) have revealed hazardous practices taking place in Guiyu like open burning, dumping of hazardous e-waste into the nearby rivers and lakes and children engaging in several of these activities.  The water is no longer fit to drink in the city and has to be brought from nearby towns as the river water in Guiyu contains 2,400 times more lead than the WHO (World Health Organization) threshold level is for drinking water. These studies have also revealed that Guiyu has the highest level of cancer causing dioxins in the world and the children in the town have excessive rate of lead in their blood. 

The aforementioned hazardous techniques and disposing of e-waste in open grounds have resulted in lead and barium leachate, toxic phosphor releases into the air and surface and groundwater contamination. Alongside severe environmental costs, workers treating e-waste without protective gear suffer from several respiratory and skin problems, with the risk of violent implosion and being exposed to cancer causing polycyclic. 

With the aim of tackling these various issues the local authorities of China have taken initiatives to build proper recycling factories and are also banning processes like open burning and acid treatments. An effective program was launched earlier known as "Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Programme" through which 61 million home appliances were collected and treated formally in 2011. A recent collaborative approach by the Chinese search engine Baidu and the United Nations Development Program plan to create an application through which users may easily sell their old electronics for cash. Since 2011, the central government has been enforcing the national e-waste legislation, which aims to formalise the e-waste recycling processes in the country.

Agbogbloshie, Ghana
Once a thriving wetland on the outskirts of Ghanaian capital, Accra, Agbogbloshie has transformed, over the last 15 years, into a toxic e-waste dumping site. The Blacksmith Institute reported it to be the most toxic place in the world in 2014, more than well-known hazardous sites like Chernobyl. 

In 2003, Ghana formulated its policy on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for accelerated development. The formalisation of this ICT driven development agenda led to a high level of mostly secondhand EEE influx into Ghana from North American and European countries. In a report published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Ghana in 2011, it is estimated that 30 percent or more of these imports are either non-functional or are near end-of-life. Given the economic opportunities that can be gained from secondary raw material markets, an extensive informal industry has emerged in Accra's Agbogbloshie market that extracts valuable metals from the e-waste.

There is currently an estimated 40,000 Ghanaians who depend on the landfill in Agbogbloshie for their survival. Migrant workers, and even children as young as five, scavenge the waste. They break glass screens and burn plastic casings to retrieve the copper and other desirable metals inside, which they sell to scrap merchants. As there are no clear and specific national regulations on e-waste recycling in Ghana, the dismantlers and recyclers in Agbogbloshie work in appalling conditions, continuously exposing themselves and communities nearby to serious hazards.

The unsafe practices of open burning have severe environmental consequences. In 2008 Greenpeace Research Laboratories conducted a small sampling campaign on soil from burning sites at Agbogbloshie. Findings from the study showed levels of copper, lead, tin and zinc present at concentrations over 100 times higher than typical background levels for soils. During periods of heavy rainfall, these toxins are transferred from the soil to nearby water bodies.

Ghana's government is tackling the problem with the support of other stakeholders. NGOs such as Pure Earth, Blacksmith Institute and Green Advocacy Ghana have provided wire-stripping machines to recyclers that offer a safer way to extract the metals. The Ministry of Environment in Ghana is drafting an e-waste bill for consideration by Parliament. The bill proposes a levy to be paid by manufacturers and importers of electronic equipment to pay for the costs of the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal and recycling of electronic waste.

Lessons learnt
As the world becomes more connected and globalised, e-waste streams will continue to rise. The extreme environmental degradation and health hazards documented at Guiyu and Agbogbloshie should act as reminder for a country like Bangladesh –a rapidly emerging economy with a focus on ICT policies to drive development – to implement formal recycling techniques and enact regulations on e-waste to circumvent a future potential crisis.

The writers are Director of 5R Associates and Project Manager of EHS Business Solutions, respectively.