I remember a time (not so long ago) when the owner of another e-scrap processor headquartered in the U.S. said, "the Chinese are happy to take any job they can get. By exporting our scrap to them for processing, they can make more money processing this stuff then they'd ever dream compared to slaving in their fields." The conversation occurred while we drove in his fully equipped Audi.
He thought his export of mixed, hazardous, electronic waste was a good thing for Chinese workers. He was completely convinced.
I think differently. I haven't been to China to see for myself the impact of e-waste exports into this country, but I've seen the videos and have talked to others who've been there. They report that in most cases, the conditions for extracting recoverable materials from the West's e-scrap are poisoning the workers.
I have traveled to Africa on five different occasions over the past five years and have witnessed their capacity for processing e-scrap. There are no precious metal smelters in East Africa; no lead smelters that will accept CRT glass; no mercury retort ovens. The ferrous metal processors operate rudimentary arc furnaces to melt steel scrap into rebar and razor wire, with minimal air emission controls. There was an impressive interest and ingenuityfrom individuals to repair, refurbish and extend the life of computer equipment, but there was essentially no industry to actually convert disassembled electronic scrap into recoverable materials.
On one visit, I was hopeful that I found a secondary lead smelter which would accept CRT glass for recycling. I located a firm advertising itself on the Web which claimed to operate such a facility in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With the help of a translator, we called their phone number, but couldn't get through. We had an address, so we tried to find it. After driving around a residential neighborhood and asking local residents, we discovered the place was a hoax. No such facility existed. It's good to check out these claims with your own eyes.
So if our company chooses to not send electronic waste - that electronic "stuff" that can't be reused or isn't shipped out as a clean metal or plastic commodity - to a developing country that is still trying to create its own manufacturing basis, does that make us racist? Some people think so, because they claim we are denying them their right to make money off this scrap while we drive around in our Audi's.
I think it's time we all recognize that there is a difference between the developing and the developed world, and we must work together to bridge this divide. We do this not by exporting the waste that Western countries don't care to process themselves to low-labor cost countries, but by capacity building in developing countries to help them build industries to safely and effectively process their own waste.
When our company chooses to not export unprocessed, non-working, e-waste to developing countries, that doesn't mean we are racist or we deny the opportunity to let people earn a livelihood. It means we're taking responsibility for our waste and choosing to internalize the cost of this activity rather than pass it on to other parties who don't necessarily have the capacity to manage these materials properly to final reclamation.
When I spoke with the manager of the ferrous recycling operation in Ethiopia, she told me that she wants clean ferrous scrap, not the mixed amalgam of metals, plastics, and toxins from electronic scrap.
We do export materials around the world - clean, processed metals, glass and plastics. These are raw material commodities that can be used in the manufacture of new products that have been properly purged of the poisons that pollute in the conversion process. We support export that creates sustainable manufacturing industries around the world.
Do we really believe that the dream of someone in a developing world is to process our toxic e-scrap? I think they would prefer to dream of driving a well equipped Audi.