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A cadmium lining

Source: The Economist, Date: , 2013

POOR countries have long been a popular destination for the rich world’s toxic trash. In 1987 an Italian importer sparked international outrage by dumping 8,000 leaky barrels in the Nigerian village of Koko. On January 9th Nigeria fined importers $1m for trying to bring in two 12-metre containers full of defunct televisions, computers, microwaves and stereos, aboard a ship from Tilbury in Britain—the fifth such incident in three years.

Waste consisting of dead electronic goods, or e-waste, is growing at three times the rate of other kinds of rubbish, fuelled by gadgets’ diminishing lifespan and the appetite for consumer electronics among the developing world’s burgeoning middle classes. In 1998 America discarded 20m computers; by 2009 that number had climbed to 47.4m. China alone retired 160m appliances in 2011, 40% of America’s haul. A 2011 report by Pike Research, a consultancy, estimates that the volume and weight of global e-scrap will more than double in the next 15 years.

International efforts to regulate the trade in waste revolve around the Basel Convention, passed in 1989 following the Koko row. It aims to stop the rich world dumping its harmful detritus in poor countries. But e-waste is not just poisonous: it contains precious metals, too. Processors, chips and connecting pins (known as “gold fingers”) contain seams of silver, gold and palladium; these “deposits” are 40 to 50 times richer than dug-up ores, according to a study conducted by the United Nations University. Other less valuable and more troubling lodes for “urban miners” include cadmium, lead and mercury.

High-tech recyclers—such as Umicore in Belgium and Xstrata in Canada—can recover up to 95% of the metal using furnaces and solvents. But dirtier methods are cheaper. In the Guiyu area of southern China 100,000 people work in e-waste recycling. It is “ground zero for the e-waste trade,” says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a green group. Standard practice is to separate the plastic by boiling circuit boards on stoves, and then leach the metals with acid. Workers risk burns, inhaling fumes and poisoning from lead and other carcinogens. A study by the nearby Shantou University found high miscarriage rates in local women.

So far, manufacturers are doing little to make their products easy to dismantle and recycle cleanly. Mr Puckett and his allies want a blanket ban on e-waste shipping to stop the West “exporting harm”. The Basel signatories took a big step in October 2011 towards a general ban on the export of hazardous waste—which would include electronic scrap. But poorer countries already produce a quarter of the world’s e-waste pile; they could overtake rich ones as early as 2018. Choking off the trade will not stop the acid cauldrons bubbling.

Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based journalist and author of a forthcoming book, “Junkyard Planet”, says that China’s wages and location give it a comparative advantage. “It’s no accident that Guiyu is so close to where iPads are being made,” he says. Feng Wang, an e-waste expert at the UN University, notes that the authorities in Guiyu are supporting safer, high-tech recycling plants. Mr Minter says other recyclers there have been using heated centrifuges to dislodge the valuable bits from circuit boards; they have charcoal filters to absorb the fumes. Guiyu would not meet Western health and safety standards, but, he says, “it’s progressed from the medieval era to the 1970s.”

Those endorsements ring hollow for Mr Puckett. He cites the dearth in developing countries of enforceable safety rules, health care for workers and courts to redress grievances when things go wrong. While poor countries lack these arrangements, he says, rich countries should not send them e-waste. And many countries do not recycle at all: most televisions and computers that end up in Nigeria are dumped. Nigeria’s parliament is currently considering a bill to prohibit traffic in e-waste altogether. The Chinese may be cheering for that.