Discarded computers, printers, copiers, mobiles… are we building e-mountains? How do we handle toxic tech trash? GEETA PADMANABHAN raises some serious questions

Citizens at Risk tells a chilling story about e-waste. Made by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Chintan Environment and Action Group and Arjun Bhagat/IMAK, the short film details what happens when computers from “US, Malaysia” come to the bylanes of Delhi to “die”. In the middle of mountains of e-scrap, barefoot children, standing on a street of lead-coated broken glass, perform the last rites. Covered in toxic dust, they smash screens with hammers, while women tear apart electronic components, boil and wash them in acid with bare hands, for money-earning metals. Acid pools are everywhere. The commentator talks of toxic hydrogen chloride fumes.

An elegant word, but there's nothing refined about e-waste. We generate it when we casually throw out computers, monitors, TVs, printers, copiers, fax machines, phones, keyboards, mouses, mobiles, laptops, projectors, cameras, audio equipment, toys, games and household appliances — e-waste is anything with a main plug or battery.

A billion dollar industry

Breaking computers is a billion dollar industry. The Printed Circuit Board has minute amounts of gold, silver, copper, palladium, aluminium and platinum. On its flip-side, e-waste contains toxic chemicals zinc, lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PVC and arsenic compounds. When the waste is burned, heavy metals are released. With water and acids, they seep into groundwater. The complex, informal system of recycling is peopled by rag pickers who know no techniques, have no protective gear.

“Our raddiwalas are smart guys,” says Prabhu Srinivasan, country manager, SIMS-Trishyiraya Recycling Solutions at MEPZ, Tambaram. “They'll pluck out the valuable parts such as aluminium in the condenser from your tube-light. The question is, where do the remnants go?” The garbage dump, of course. “Brominated flame-retardants (BFR) and poly vinyl chloride (PVC) in most mobiles and IT equipment are highly toxic,” says Arun Senthil Ram of Toxics Link. “When burnt, they release furans, dioxins and neuro toxins.”

The MAIT-GTZ e-Waste Assessment Study says we'll be creating 4.7 lakh tonnes of this special waste this year. Add to this 50,000 tonnes coming from abroad (“Not allowed,” says Prabhu) and those dumped in the name of charity/reuse from the West, you can visualise the e-mountains we build. What gives the issue urgency is the speed of discarding — e-gadgets get obsolete before you have completely unpacked them.

Licensed first-stage companies such as SIMS say they strip and segregate through clean practices. Phosphorous is sucked out of cathode ray tubes and disposed of safely. Glass is smelted to be made into picture tubes again. “We spend $4 million for safety training with Dupont,” says Prabhu. “Workers are insured and undergo a medical check-up every six months.” He makes presentations at IT hubs, asking for discarded e-appliances, lead batteries, cells and CDs. Weekly collections are his business capital, but he sees this as an opportunity to educate people about e-waste hazards. “The white goods boom that drives the flooding of e-waste must be controlled now,” he says. The radiation incident in Delhi is a wake-up call, a classic case of e-waste (from scanners, x-ray and other machines) going to unauthorised, ill-informed recyclers.

Three solutions

The film recommends three solutions: The government shuts down the lethal, illegal, backyard industry, throwing thousands of self-employed out of work; manufacturers upgrade this industry making it safe and profitable under Extended Producer Responsibility; or take the ideal road to make goods less toxic. “All manufacturers charge you for disposal, the environmental cost,” says Prabhu. “Only one promises to plant a tree if you recycle their gadget.”

Residential associations could collect e-waste and call Prabhu. “We'll give you a green certificate for that,” he says, dangling a carrot.

Garbage/landfill mining can be a clean, profitable business, says Mehul Kamdar, who works in this field. “With a well-written set of laws and a properly thought-out policy, reprocessing entrepreneurs can keep the environment clean and generate employment.”

Tamil Nadu has drafted an e-waste policy, says Arun.

Household users, bulk IT users and manufacturers never question what happens to our deadly waste. Some are repaired. Others are dismantled and the parts cannibalised in weekly markets (try Pallavaram on Fridays). As we proudly switch on a slim new desktop, the air outside gets thick with harmful gases from the old one, the ground is drenched in leached toxins. They'll come back to us as carcinogenic air, water and food.

WASTE TRIMMER

It’s energy efficient to rebuild old computers.

Recycling just a million cell phones would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Flat panel computer monitors/notebooks contain small amounts of mercury.

Cathode ray tubes in older TVs/computers have lead.