E-Waste Recycling in Poor Countries

In Western countries, it is increasingly common to replace electronic equipment within a few years. Currently, many countries are
implementing laws that mandate switching from analogue to digital television broadcasting, further accelerating the rate at which people dispose off their old televisions. In addition, because of rapid advancements in technology, many people in both the global South and North are replacing mobile phones and computers. Because of this, the generation of electronic waste, or e-waste, is growing rapidly.

Many people are unaware that their old computers and televisions are shipped to countries including China, India and Pakistan for “recycling”. This article will discuss the implications of this problem. First, the scale of the problem will be revealed and secondly, specific case studies in the aforementioned countries will be discussed including the effects on workers and the environment. This section will also examine the chemicals contained in electronic equipment. Finally, solutions to the problem will be discussed.

The Scale of E-Waste

In 1989, the Basel Convention was created by the United Nations (UN) in order to limit hazardous waste. This treaty was ratified in 1992 by 149 countries; however, it was not signed by the U.S, which means that enforcement of this treaty is scant, according to a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network.

It is possible to gather statistics on e-waste; however, the true scale of the problem may not be known. According to the US National Safety Council, 315 million computers were rendered useless between 1997 and 2004.

In addition, in the US, between 50 and 80 percent of e-waste is sent to poor countries. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many US states are now banning e-waste from landfills states Markoff in an article in the New York Times.

The problem is not only confined to the US. Worldwide, the UN estimates that between 20 and 50 million tons of e-waste is generated every year. Approximately 12 million tons of this comes from Asian countries.

The European Union estimates that e-waste will grow every year by 3 to 5 percent and now, e-waste constitutes a larger portion of municipal waste than diapers or drink containers, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network. This is clearly a serious problem if the e-waste cannot be recycled properly. In many poor countries, even those who have signed the Basel Convention, e-waste is handled improperly. Many workers are illiterate and are not aware of any safety regulations governing the handling of e-waste.

In 1994, an amendment to the Basel Convention was introduced, which forbid the export of hazardous waste, including e-waste from OECD countries to non-OECD countries.

Many countries including the US, Canada and Australia are actively fighting against this amendment, which will allow the situation to deteriorate even further.

Currently, most e-waste is exported to a few specific areas such as Guiyu, Delhi and Karachi in China, India and Pakistan respectively. The following section will examine the problems in these areas.

The Situation in Guiyu, China

Guiyu is located in Guangdong Province in Southern China, very close to Hong Kong and the South China Sea. It has a population of 197,190, according to statistics given by Falling Rain genomics. There are at least 100,000 workers engaged in the e-waste industry and many are working just with chisels and their hands.

In this area, the Basel Action Network conducted several studies to assess the scale of the situation. It was found that most e-waste had come from North America, but some had also arrived from Japan, South Korea and the European Union. The Basel Action Network also tested the soil and water. In the water, the lead levels were 2400 times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

In addition, the sediment at the bottom of the river was tested and it was found that chromium was 1,338 times the recommended US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) level. Both chromium and lead are dangerous chemicals, which will be further discussed later in the article. Due to the water pollution in Guiyu, water has been brought into the town from 20 miles away since 1995, states Markoff in an article in the New York Times.

Delhi’s Situation

In New Delhi, it is perfectly normal for computer circuit boards to be burned. Because of this, air pollution is a very large problem. Many old computers come to India because the government allows the import of 10 year old computers, states Sinha in an article published in Toxics Alert, an environment news bulletin. In addition, the labour costs compared to the US for computer recycling is very low. In the US, the cost of recycling one computer is $20 whereas it costs just $2 to recycle it in India, Sinha reveals.

Although much of the e-waste in New Delhi comes from rich countries, much of it also originates from within India. As of March 2007, 150,000 tons of e-waste was produced in India; 19,000 tons of this comes from Mumbai, the largest e-waste generator in India, according to a study by an environmental group Toxics Link, titled ‘Mumbai: Choking on E-Waste’.

Presently, there are no laws in India governing e-waste. In addition, many workers in the e-waste industry are illiterate. Thus, even if India did pass laws banning the import of e-waste, the workers would be unaware of the situation.

Thomas Kostigen, author of ‘You Are Here’ states that, as of September 2008, India was considering a law that would designate e-waste as nonhazardous waste, which would further encourage the import of e-waste and endanger the workers.

Karachi’s E-Waste Industry

There are many people engaged in the e-waste industry in Karachi, many of whom are children. This is happening despite the fact that Pakistan imposes a 25 percent levy on computer screens, according to IT-Green, Ethical UK Computer disposal and data destruction

Circuit boards in Pakistan are often taken apart indoors with blowtorches and with very little ventilation. The circuit boards originate from all over the world, including the US, Kuwait, Australia, Japan and the UK. Only 2 percent of the computers can be reused; for the remaining computers, all of the metals and plastics are taken out to be re-sold, according to Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network. All of the work is done by hand and no protective
equipment is used.

Robert Knoth, a photographer affiliated with Greenpeace, created a photo essay about the area of Lyari in Karachi. This area receives a lot of e-waste from Europe. Knoth found e-waste burning near the river in Lyari and many of the chemicals from the e-waste had seeped into the river, turning it black.

He also found that many children, some as young as 12, were
working in the e-waste industry. Many children are abused in Pakistani schools and as a result, 50 percent of children in their first 5 years of education drop out, which is one of the highest rates in the world, according to a report by IRIN News, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In addition, the Pakistan Paediatric Association conducted a study about abuse in schools and found that 88 percent of children in Karachi were given corporal punishment. Lastly, it is important to note that there is very little law enforcement concerning e-waste in Lyari and other parts of Karachi.

Chemicals found in E-Waste and Their Effects

Brominated Flame Retardants Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are put into computers in order to decrease flammability. Studies have been done on BFRs recently, which show that they can bioaccumulate in animals and humans, meaning that they can easily enter the bloodstream. In addition, if computer parts are burned, dioxins are released, which are very toxic, according to Greenpeace International.

Even if computers are recycled properly, the high temperatures allow BFRs to combine with other chemicals, which is very dangerous. For these reasons, some computer companies are phasing BFRs out of electronic products.

Lead and Chromium

Lead was phased out of gasoline in the US in 1996, according to Centers for Disease Control. One of the main reasons for this was the fact that lead can cause brain damage and can affect sperm
production as well as increasing miscarriages. Lead is also able to travel long distances and can affect almost every body part as it can penetrate the central nervous system.

Lead is also very dangerous for children because it can affect
reasoning and mental ability in general. Children’s brains are especially prone, as the brain is still rapidly developing.

Chromium can easily enter the soil and water. If it is breathed in, it can cause nose ulcers, shortness of breath, and asthma.

If chromium enters drinking water, stomach tumours are quite likely. Lastly, chromium is a known carcinogen; if it is merely breathed in, lung cancer can occur in both people and animals.

Solutions to the E-Waste Problem

There are many solutions to the e-waste problem. Firstly, many people in countries such as Japan, US, Canada and South Korea as well as the European Union are unaware that their old computers and televisions are being exported to poorer countries. If there was more awareness of the issue, it is likelier that people in the aforementioned countries would try to recycle their computers in their own countries.

Secondly, if the Basel Convention were signed by the US, it would carry much more weight. As the world’s largest exporter of e-waste, the US has a responsibi-lity on this issue and has a duty to sign the convention in addition to ending its opposition to the amendment.

In countries such as Pakistan, there are many solutions to the e-waste problem. First, China, India and Pakistan are all parties to the Basel Convention, which means that more enforcement is needed. In Pakistan, many children are dropping out of school due to abuse and for employment opportunities. This needs to end; however, it will undoubtedly take a long time for school culture to change.

In the meantime, workers and the environment affected by the e-waste industry need protection.

A special fund should be set up by rich countries to educate workers in the industry about the dangers and for law enforcement. If this were the case, the dangers faced by workers would decrease.


Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network “Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia” http://svtc.igc.org/ cleancc/pubs/technotrash.pdf

John Markoff “Technology’s Toxic Trash is Sent to Poor Nations” http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0225-01.htm

Erica Gies “US Switch to Digital TV raises specter of toxic dumping of old sets”

Greenpeace International “The e-waste problem”

Falling Grain Genomics Inc “Guiyu, China Page” http://www.fallingrain.com/ world/CH/30/Guiyu.html

Satish Sinha “E-waste: Time to Act Now” < http://enews.toxicslink.org/feature-view.php?id=1>

Toxics Link India “Mumbai Generating 19,000 Tons of E-Waste Annually: Study” http://enews.toxicslink.org/news-view.php?id=19

IT Green “The Environmental Impact of un-managed Computer Recycling” http://www.it-green.co.uk/ethical_computer_disposal.htm

Robert Knoth “Scrap Life: E-Waste in Pakistan”
IRIN News “School Beatings Make Pakistani Students dropout” http://southasia.oneworld.net/Article/school-beatings-make-pakistani-students-dropout

Centers for Disease Control “Lead”

Be Sociable, Share!

Author Information

Miriam Katz is a freelance writer and English teacher, currently based in Tokyo, Japan. She has many interests including climate change, renewable energy and food issues. Miriam has an Honours BA from the University of Toronto in political science and environmental studies. This fall, she will attend York University in Toronto for her Master's in environmental studies.

One Response to “E-Waste Recycling in Poor Countries”

  1. Jenn Marcelais #

    Great article! The e-Waste problem is growing into a worldwide epidemic. Just because some countries ship their obsolete electronics to other countries to make it their problem, doesn’t mean we won’t suffer from the effects as well. Countries like China, India and Ghana that the rest of the world is exporting their e-Waste to have little or no regulations on recycling, disposal or environmental restrictions. We need to increase regulation in the US and dispose of these products safely rather than pass the problem off to other countries who care even less. Just because their polluting their immediate environment, doesn’t mean ours won’t be affected by it in turn.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:17 pm Reply

Leave a Reply