Hazardous tech threatens recycling workers

Greenpeace has condemned IT manufacturers for endangering the health of workers employed in breaking down old kit

Workers in India and China employed in the recycling of mostly Western electronic devices are being exposed to potentially hazardous toxic substances due to the careless manufacturing practices of technology makers, according to environmental campaign group Greenpeace.

A report released on Wednesday by the environmental campaigning group claimed that quantities of toxic heavy metals can potentially be released into the workplace and the surrounding environment at all stages of the processing of electrical and electronic waste.

The authors of Recycling of Electrical Wastes in China & India: Workplace & Environmental Contamination claim to have detected high levels of toxic metals in the environment around Guiyu Town in Southern China and the suburbs of New Delhi. More than 70 samples were collected by Greenpeace researchers in March this year from ground water, river sediment, industrial waste and soil.

Large amounts of waste electrical and electronic goods are shipped, often illegally, to poor or developing countries to be recycled by local inhabitants who are usually poorly equipped to handle hazardous waste and ignorant of potential effects of such activity on health.

One of the Greenpeace scientists, Dr Kevin Bridgen, who collected the samples of dust from workshops and sediment from local rivers, said the report highlighted the need for technology manufacturers to clean up their act.

"The data reinforces the need for the electronics industry to eliminate the use of harmful substances in their products at the design stage and take responsibility for their products at the end of their lifecycle," said Dr Bridgen.

According to the report the e-waste recycling sector in many parts of Asia remains largely unregulated and "is also poorly studied with regard to its impacts on the environment and on the health of recycling workers and surrounding communities".

The EU, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and several US states have introduced legislation making producers responsible for the disposal and recycling of their products. The Waste and Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive was due to be enacted into UK legislation in August 2005 but has now been delayed until at least July 2006.

The introduction of the WEEE directive in Ireland has allegedly led to price hikes on some IT products by manufacturers responding to a mandatory visible fee on consumer technology. Manufacturers have to make consumers aware that a certain percentage of a product's total cost — up to €40 (£27) on some larger devices — has to be ploughed back into recycling. Some Irish retailers and manufacturers have opted simply to add the extra costs onto a products total price rather than absorbing it via decreased profit margins.

Dr Kirstie McIntyre, WEEE UK programme manager for HP, said it was unlikely that the UK authorities would impose a visible fee when WEEE is eventually introduced. She argued that it was unfair to saddle all vendors with the same fee when some do a lot more to make their products easily recyclable than others.

The EU has also introduced legislation — the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (RoHS), which is due to be enacted into UK legislation next year — to ban the use of certain hazardous substances.

HP announced the introduction of a free recycling service for business customers across the UK this week. The company has created a recycling web order tool to direct customers to their nearest collection point.

"Unlike the previous recycling programme, there are no calculations or negotiations regarding the volume and type of products being returned, " said McIntyre.