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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

You Are Reading This Item on an Environmental Hazard 

Dept. of Stuff We Didn't Know: an excerpt from "The Trash Folder" by Matthew Power, in the January Harper's (not, alas, online). According to Power's estimate, by the year 2006 "some 163,240 computers, weighing 3,513 tons, will become obsolete in America every day":
The half-billion computers rolling toward obsolescence in America contain 6.3 billion pounds of plastics, I.6 billion pounds of lead, and 630,000 pounds of Mercury, along with cadmium, barium, arsenic, and a periodic table of other hazardous elements. [The CRT] monitor [in the accompanying illustration] is likely to contain four pounds of lead. The U.S. imposes no export charges on e-waste and is, moreover, the only developed country to have refused to sign the Basel Convention, which was designed to prevent the export of toxic wastes from rich to poor countries. According to industry sources contacted by the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental nonprofit, an estimated 80 percent of computers turned in for recycling are quietly parceled off to e-waste "brokers," who in turn ship them to any of a number of developing-world dumping grounds: Chennai, India; Karachi, Pakistan; or Guiyu, China, a former rice-farming village east of Hong Kong, where 100,000 migrant gleaners wring every last yuan from yesterday's hot desktops.

Perhaps the most carefully designed objects in our culture, computers have never been built with ease of dismantling in mind. [The] copper yoke on a cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor is worth about 80 cents -- more than half a day's pay to a gleaner in Guiyu, whose job it is to break off the yoke with a hammer. The rest of the monitor's leaded glass is smashed and dumped in drainage canals running through town. Independent tests by investigators from BAN and Greenpeace found levels of lead in Guiyu's river that were 190 times the safe limit for drinking water. Chinese media have reported elevated levels of tuberculosis, birth defects, and respiratory problems there. CRT's are among the most dangerous components of e-waste, and their replacement by mercury-laden flat-panel displays now promises to dump millions more tons of toxins into the environment.
Power claims that a 2002 ban on the importation of e-waste enacted by the Chinese government has only driven the practice underground. "Customs inspectors are well-lubricated by e-waste brokers, who themselves are amply compensated on both ends . . . . The workers of Guiyu, meanwhile, are given an untenable choice between poverty and poison."

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