Digital Dumps

Jayati Ghosh

I teach in a University in New Delhi, the capital city of India. In one section of the building that houses my faculty, there is an enormous and motley collection of discarded computer-related items, stacked and piled in an unwieldy mess. This has been lying around for a while now, more than a year, not only because of the prolonged bureaucratic procedures involved in getting material “written off”, but also because no one knows what to do with the stuff once it has actually been written off.

It is a sight that that is increasingly only too common in urban India, and now even in some more prosperous rural areas of the country: ramshackle piles of dismembered pieces of discarded electronic equipment such as computers, CD players, televisions and cell phones lying around in the odd corners of offices and homes. Or else simply dumped in the open in garbage heaps, and then being painstakingly searched through by rag-pickers of all ages, who look for any elements that can be resold.

In most developing countries, where recycling occurs as a matter of course because of the widespread poverty and sharp inequality that mark our consumption patterns, this may seem as something quite obvious and hardly worthy of comment. Some may even see this as evidence of our greater ability to use and re-use material items more effectively than the wasteful West. Yet this cavalier attitude to electronic waste is a major hazard to the environment and human health.

This is also because developing countries often have to deal with e-waste that is far in excess of what is generated by production and consumption within the country. The global trade in e-waste is huge and growing, and is only partly illegal even though there have been attempts to regulate it.

In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing component of municipal waste across the world (more than 60 million tonnes of it generated every year) because of the high rate of obsolescence of most electronic goods. It is more of a problem than all the other waste because of its greater health and environmental hazards. Most electronic goods contain significant quantities of toxic metals and chemicals. If these are left untreated to lie around in landfills or dumps, they leach into the surrounding soil, water and the atmosphere. Many elements of the waste are hazardous: the circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, connectors and other elements almost always contain poisonous substances like lead, tin, mercury, cadmium and barium.

E-waste has been linked to the growing incidence of several lethal or severely debilitating health conditions, including cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and birth defects. As usual, this impact is worse in developing countries, where people often live in close proximity to dumps or landfills of untreated e-waste.

There are basically four ways in which e-waste can be dealt with, and none of them is really very satisfactory. The most common one, especially in the developing world, is simply to store it in landfills, with all the associated dangers. This practice has already been banned in the European Union and some other developed countries, who instead export this waste to poorer countries. Another way is to burn the goods, but this releases heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury into the atmosphere.

Re-using and recycling are obviously preferable because they increase the life-span of the products and so imply less waste over time. The re-use of second hand electronic goods in the developing world falls in this category, although it still eventually generates waste that ends up located in these countries. But recycling exposes workers to health hazards, especially in developing countries where it is dominantly done in scrap yards by hand, without any protection for workers.

These difficulties in dealing with e-waste probably explain why the global trade in e-waste has expanded so rapidly, as developed countries find this an easy way to simply transfer the problem to poorer countries whose governments are either not aware of all the risks involved, or feel that they are accessing cheaper second-hand versions of electronic goods.

Some international attempt at regulation has occurred, such as the Basel Convention of 1992 that suggests policies and enforcement mechanisms to control hazardous waste from its production to its storage, transport, reuse, recycling, and final disposal. Typically, the US – which signed the treaty – has not yet ratified it, and it is still seen the greatest dumper, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of hazardous waste export to developing nations. The European Union has a ban on the export of e-waste, but it is generally ineffective, as the illegal trade in e-waste continues to flourish with exports going to China, India and Africa.

India is one of the important destinations for this global hazardous trash, although there are few estimates of how large the problem actually is since so much of the trade is extra-legal. China has been another major importer, though there have been recent attempts to curb this practice. In India, and probably elsewhere, poor regulations and absence of any clear policy for dealing with electronic waste add to the problems and potential for disaster.

One reason why this issue is still not sharply on the policy antennae may be because “global warming” has become the flavour of the month for global environmental discussions. All other concerns, including the more severe and immediate problems of pollution and degradation, are being given relatively short shrift. Yet the unregulated accumulation of electronic waste may well lead to public health disasters in the near future.

2 Responses to “Digital Dumps”

  1. Thanks for this post on a subject that is rarely dealt with, but which is so ubiquitous in modern life. Stacks and piles of e-waste also reflects an very unhealthy approach to computing resources, contained in the small microprocessors these devices have and the programming that runs them. Twenty-odd years ago, the scarcity of computing hardware gave rise to very inventive groups of people, scientists, researchers, hobbyists, who used whatever processing power they could find and rewrote the code for new needs, for which there were no readyily available hardware/software. India’s digital revolution, the cornucopia of new devices in the mobile phone format, has almost extinguished this inventiveness. In a country which is able to measure, not very reliably, only 81 major reservoirs but is unable to give weekly estimates during monsoon of the 8,000-odd minor irrigations structures, one would think that small devices refashioned from discarded but perfectly useful e-waste would be a booming tech zone. The applications in agriculture and rural development that could cheaply use the hardware are myriad. Much can be done with very little computing power – the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft, still travelling 30 years later, do their computing in 8-bit mode and their data transfer is 1,400 bits per second. Stacks and piles of e-waste are there, partly, because of the sadly common belief that there is now a Facebook app for everything you could possible wish for and then some, and more because the higher purposes of creative recycling have been ignored by our adored IT industry.

  2. Jayati Ghosh says:

    Thanks Rahul for making this extremely important point, which had not actually occurred to me, probably because I (like so many others) have bought into the probably false notion of the lower possibilities of recycling of these devices.I particularly appreciate the point about how much can still be done with relatively little computing power.