China is to enforce a ban on the importation of 'smuggled' scrap computers from the West, in the face of a growing toxic waste scandal.
A string of reports in the Chinese press has uncovered dangerous break-up methods in the so-called e-waste industry,exposing workers, including children, to hazardous waste. In Guangdong Province, local water supplies have been poisoned through the computer 'recycling' and some agricultural land is now too contaminated with toxic waste to farm, according to The Guardian's John Gittings. Up to 100,000 people in China are employed in the e-waste trade, he reports.
China's new moves to ban toxic computer waste follow a report published in March this year from a coalition of environmental campaigners, which estimated that anything between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of US computer waste is exported to Asia, including India and Pakistan as well as China.
The US is the most prominent opponent of the so-called Basel BAN amendment which bans the export of toxic waste by the 29 richest members of the OECD. Canada, Australia and Brazil are allies of the US in opposition.
The US has relatively weak laws governing the treatment of electronic waste, and regulators have not taken decisive action to date to ensure safe treatment. Of course the export of hazardous waste makes it that much easier to avoid imposing expensive end-of-life rules on the country's vociferous computer industry.
This is soon to change. Under new proposals published last week by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), computer and TV cathode-ray tube monitors are to be reclassified as 'universal waste', meaning that they should no longer be dumped in landfill sites. This will bring the US into line with the EU, where computer monitors are already classified as poisonous waste.
Cathode-ray tubes contain large amounts of lead - up to 3.5 kilos in some monitors - as well as birth defect-causing mercury.
Of course, tougher restrictions at home in the US, coupled with no restrictions on exporting toxic junk abroad, will increase the incentives for computer 'recyclers' to ship America's e-waste abroad.