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E-waste

When old electronics meet their end, much ends up becoming toxic waste in China

Thursday, February 08, 2007 by: M.T. Whitney
Tags: e-waste, computers, recycling


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(NewsTarget) Old computers and other used-up appliances are creating polluted environments in Asia, the final resting place for much of the world's electronic goods, reports the China Daily newspaper.

Known as "e-waste," more than 75 percent of televisions, computers and other home electronics discarded by the developed world end up bound for Asia. Up to 90 percent of the old electronics goes to China, according to the Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of China's Ministry of Science and Technology.

However, only 10 percent of the electronics that go to China are recycled for reuse. The rest gets burned, destroyed or otherwise reduced to poisonous end-products.

Inside computers and other electronics are gold, copper and other reusable precious metals. This makes the 90 percent of discarded electronics not recycled a viable enterprise for people looking to extract those precious metals. However, many of these "electronics harvesters" use simple and environmentally unfriendly processes to get the metals out, such as putting the machines through acid baths.

The result is that lead, mercury and other chemicals are released into the atmosphere through toxic gasses and put into lakes and rivers through wastewater systems. The harvesters are burning the plastic cases, melting lead-based monitor glass and simply tossing out the undesirable by-products of precious metal extraction.

In some cities that are hotspots for the metal extraction business, pollution levels are much higher than American or European standards.

In the Guiyu area, an agricultural sector in south China that many e-processers have set up shop, the groundwater became so contaminated that drinking water had to be brought in from an area 18 miles away, according to a 2001 report from the Seattle-based toxic trade watchdog Basel Action Network.

Sediment samples from the area showed that the groundwater had so much lead in it that it would have been considered 212 times more toxified than acceptable standards if it came from Europe's Rhine River.

"Tin was found at levels 152 times the EPA threshold. Chromium in one sample was at levels 1,338 times the EPA threshold level," the report added.

A major source of this e-waste are unsuspecting good Samaritans in America thinking they are helping the environment: Much of the old electronics donated by people and businesses for recycling in the U.S. instead gets exported into the world market.

"Informed recycling industry sources estimate that between 50 to 80 percent of the e-waste collected for recycling in the western U.S. are not recycled domestically," according to the BAN report.

From there, the supply market takes over, and often metal extraction companies win.

The supply market of old electronics sways in favor of these shops because they often offer higher prices for the goods than recycling outfits can.

The supply is good, too: the volume of e-waste from the United States is "estimated at 5 to 7 million tons," the report said.

In China alone excluding the e-waste that is brought into the country "about 150 million television sets, washing machines, refrigerators, air-conditioners and computers are discarded every year in China," the China Daily reported, using statistics from the China Home Electronics Association.

For the American market, the BAN report from 2001 posited that e-waste numbers would rise by 2006 thanks to the proliferation of High-Definition Television flat-screen TVs obsolescing old television technology, and the fact that most computers bought today are replacements for an old one that must be thrown out.

The world market for e-waste is one that is mostly unregulated, but a limited number of other countries are involved. Outside of China, other countries in the metal extraction business include India and Pakistan. The Middle Eastern country of Dubai is another major collector of discarded electronics, but it acts as a middleman: most of what it receives is re-exported out to China and other countries.

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