America's E-bombs

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Posted by Mr. E from ? ( on Tuesday, March 26, 2002 at 11:25AM :

Published on Monday, March 25, 2002 in The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

America's E-Bombs are Killing Innocent People in the Third World

by Rick Mercier

FREDERICKSBURG, Va.--JUST THINK HOW bad it would be if people in wealthier, more developed parts of the world exported their garbage to Virginia.

Oh, yeah, that already happens. (Thanks, New York.)

But just think how terrible it would be if that garbage were laden with toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and cancer-causing cadmium--and all of it were dumped in fields, ponds, wetlands, irrigation ditches, and along riverbanks, where it then contaminated local soil and water.

If you were living in Guilu, China, you wouldn't have to imagine this scenario--it would be reality for you. And like many people in that impoverished village, you might be eking out an existence scavenging components from thousands of discarded electronic machines in ways that cause lead poisoning in your children and an increased risk of cancer for you, your loved ones, and your neighbors.

A report released recently by the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition--with assistance from other organizations in India, Pakistan, and China--states that the United States and other developed nations are exporting huge amounts of dangerous electronic waste, or e-waste, to places like Guilu.

The report, available online at, found that between 50 percent and 80 percent of the electronic equipment collected at recycling centers in the United States isn't really recycled at all. Instead, it winds up on that proverbial slow boat to China and is dumped in unfortunate places like Guilu, where there is no pretense of protecting the environment or public health from the toxic substances contained in the high-tech refuse.

The production-consumption-disposal circuit that electronic gadgets travel during their life cycle illustrates some of the grim fundamentals of the global economy as it exists in the real world, not in the minds of economists and ideologues.

Consider a computer that is "recycled" and finds a final resting place in a puddle in a Chinese village where a local person disassembles it with a hammer. The computer likely was made by very poor people--possibly Chinese--who are unable to organize independent unions because of political repression. Those who do try to organize get beaten up, thrown in jail--or worse.

The multinational corporation for whom that computer was made knows all about those repressive conditions that keep wages down and considers them, in the murky argot of contemporary capitalism, "competitive advantages."

The computer ends up being sold to a consumer in an affluent country. When the consumer upgrades in a couple of years, he turns in the computer to a recycling center, whereupon it's eventually shipped to some poor country and poisons a village like Guilu with its heavy-metals content and carcinogens.

Oddly enough, there exists an international treaty, called the Basel Convention, that prohibits the export of hazardous wastes from rich countries to poor ones. But--wouldn't you know it?--the United States has yet to ratify it (we join Haiti and Afghanistan as the only nations able to claim that dubious honor).

Meanwhile, the United States also has exempted toxic e-waste from its own laws pertaining to exports.

The National Safety Council estimates that Americans have discarded or will discard as many as 315 million computers between 1997 and 2004. So the problem of e-waste isn't going away; the question is how to deal with an impending crisis in a responsible and ethical manner.

Environmental organizations are calling on the United States to follow Europe's example and immediately implement a ban on the export of any hazardous waste to developing countries. They also are pushing for the United States and other developed countries to address the e-waste problem "upstream"--that is, at the point of production.

The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition say the electronics industry should be required to establish "take-back" recycling programs, phase out the use of toxic parts, and create new green designs for long life, upgradeability, and easy recycling.

Some companies are already making efforts to take back what they produce. Xerox, through its office-equipment leasing program, is said to reuse most of the components in its machines.

But greater corporate and government accountability as regards e-waste is not likely to materialize unless there's grass-roots agitation demanding it. Fortunately, groups such as the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition provide some hope on this front.

Local movements for environmental justice also offer cause for optimism. These movements have gained considerable steam in the past decade and in some cases have brought a halt to illegal and dangerous polluting practices in or around poor neighborhoods in the United States.

The same principles that drive local environmental-justice struggles can be invoked on behalf of places like Guilu--and should be.

After all, free trade shouldn't amount to a free pass for Americans to unload their toxic troubles on the world's poor.

Rick Mercier is a columnist and copy editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached at; or by mail at The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401.

-- Mr. E
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