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Global Ideas

Informal recycling of e-waste a serious problem, expert says

Used computers and mobile phones are often recycled illegally in developing countries. E-waste expert Deepali Sinha Khetriwal says informal recycling poses a serious threat both to people and the environment.

Deepali Sinha Khetriwal is a research associate at the United Nations University in Bonn where she works on the Step Initiative (Solving the E-waste Problem). She focused on consumer habits and electronic waste in her PhD on the policy, research and economic aspects of e-waste.

Global Ideas: Germany has 80 million residents and about the same number of old cell phones lying around. How has the usage of mobile phones developed in recent years?

Deepali Sinha Khetriwal

Deepali Sinha Khetriwal

Deepali Sinha Khetriwal: Everywhere you look, the penetration of mobile phones is skyrocketing. It’s exponential growth...Every year, India and China are adding 300 to 400 million new subscribers a year. So it’s a very rapid penetration. And it’s right across the social strata which is very interesting because it’s giving a lot of people access to services which they didn’t have previously. Lots of people have just leaped from not having any telephones at all to just having a mobile phone. So they haven't gone through the whole landline usage phenomenon.

How long is the lifespan of a mobile phone?

Most mobile phone manufacturers and companies estimate between eighteen months and two years. It’s not the actual technical lifespan of the phone. If you have a mobile phone, technically it’s probably capable of working 10, 12, 15 years even. But the actual usage is only for about two years. It’s probably different in different countries. In a country like India, a developing country, you have a slightly longer lifetime because of the extensive re-use that takes place. In more industrialized countries, like Germany for example, it’s limited to some 18 months – or as soon as your past contract expires, you get a new phone. And that’s also the kind of cycle time that mobile phone manufacturers work to in terms of launching new products, in terms of launching new models.

E-waste from industrialized countries is still often shipped to Asia and Africa, but that has changed somewhat because of the Basel Convention which amounts to an international policy on e-waste. Has much has really changed?

The Basel Convention is actually much more about the documentation side of trade in e-waste. The convention is really to say if a shipment of waste is going from say Germany to India or any country, there is a system of prior information and prior consent. It’s to say we are shipping hazardous waste from this country to that country. And you just inform the other country and they say okay that’s fine we’re happy to accept it, we have the capabilities to process it, etc. That’s really the fundamental basis of the Basel Convention.

A scavenger at a dumpsite in Delhi. Photo: DW/Carl Gierstorfer

People in developing countries often live off recycling waste from industrialized nations

The next thing that the Basel Convention has is the Basel Ban. That is a very limited aspect of the Basel Convention. The Basel Ban is applicable only to e-waste that’s being shipped from developed countries to developing countries. That is only true if those countries have ratified the ban. You could have a country like the US which is not a signatory to the Basel Ban so they can still ship waste from say the US to Nigeria or Ghana or India.

Where do e-waste products from the West end up? Are they reused or do they end up in landfills?

I wouldn’t say they go straight to the landfill. Once the shipments reach an importing country, they often go through traders and recyclers who either recycle or refurbish or take out metals, actual extraction of copper, before it goes to the landfill. So at least some part of it does go to the landfill but it’s not like it just comes off the ship and goes into the landfill. The illegal import is precisely for that function. It’s to do the recycling and trading, unlike a lot of other solid waste that goes straight to the landfill. But there is a proper trade, there’s a whole eco-system.

A woman scrapes plastic off of a board

Dangerous work - a woman scrapes off plastic from a circuit board

The most commonly recycled parts are PCB’s (printed circuit board) which have all the precious metals. They take out the copper wires which are high value and they are able to strip the metal down to copper and sell it to other users. There are parts of a computer or a mobile phone that are lucrative but then there are parts that are not, like the plastics etc. So you will find just the shell of a monitor in a dump somewhere. Or the keys for example of a keyboard, they’re just thrown away.

Most people think that the minute you say e-waste it’s all about computers, cell phones, etc. But it’s also about things like refridgerators or washing machines, toasters and vacum cleaners. This is all under e-waste. You have also a lot of refrigerators for example being shipped to developing countries which are discarded in developed countries. Because of the way they are handled, stored and shipped, it damages the compressor, it damages the mechanism in a way that they are really either inefficient and energy guzzling or they really just don’t cool enough so they then end up in the trash.

The refrigerators are all metal so that is all the part that is recyclable. The shell outside, for example. But it’s very unsafe. There’s the refridgerant, there’s the cooling foam and stuff which can be quite dangerous.

How can it be hazardous or dangerous?

Improper recycling is hazardous in the first place. If you have a PCB and you want to recover the gold from it and you want to do it in this informal way, you would use mercury and different acids and things like this to recover the gold. That is hazardous not only for the person who is doing it, the recycler, but then he’s boiling it so it’s all going into the air, he’s probably putting it down the drain so it’s contaminating the water, it’s obviously done on open land so the soil also gets all these things. So it’s hazardous in the processing. And then of course, once you strip the PCB of the gold, the rest is actually just landfill, it’s dumped somewhere so it’s hazardous again. The process itself as well as the end are both hazardous.

Who’s to blame for all this e-waste? Is it because of insufficient international policy, or are the consumers themselves the problem because they buy too many devices?

Burning electrical waste in India

When e-waste is burned, it produces toxic gases that are hazardous to people and the environment

It’s difficult, I don’t think you can just blame one person. I think you need to look at everything. You do need the policies in place and you do need the awareness among the consumers and you do need awareness among the recyclers. The reason it happens is because there is a chance to make a profit out of something like this.

It’s easy to say yes if you put a policy it should stop but the actual implementation is actually much more difficult than the policy which is already in itself quite difficult. So I don’t think it’s possible or even right to try to blame somebody because it’s right across all the stakeholders who have to play a role in solving the problem.

What is the best solution? To make recycling more formal and to improve the infrastructure?

The difference between a formal and informal recycler for me at least is really in their processes and controls in terms of the toxicity. So being able to control and prevent toxins from escaping. In an informal setup, you don’t have those controls. You’re not wearing your protective equipment, you don’t have a closed area to keep all the toxic parts, your processes are not so clean. In a formal setup, you do have more of those controls, the possibility to reduce the toxins and control the hazardousness of that. So that is the way to go I think.

There is a development of a formal reycling infrastructure in quite a lot of developing countries now. Not to say it’s going to change things completely. The informal recycling sector is still very strong in many many countries. That’s certainly the case in India, that’s certainly the case in Nigeria that’s certainly the case in Ghana. You have lots and lots of people engaged in e-waste and it’s not overnight that they can be converted into formal recyclers.

So in your opinion the biggest problem with e-waste is that most of it is hazardous if it’s not treated correctly?

Yes. If your mobile phone is sitting in your drawer at home, it’s not hazardous. It’s safe to continue sitting. But the minute you try to recycle it wrongly, that’s when it’s hazardous.

So would you say it's safer to just keep all of our old mobile phones?

No I’m not saying that at all! I think the best thing is to either extend the life of the mobile phone. You have to think about the three R’s principle: reduce, reuse and recycle. From a consumer point of view, the first thing to do would be to say do I really need a new mobile phone? If you really do need a new mobile phone then say is there somebody else who can use my old mobile phone. So you have the reduce, then you have the reuse. And if nobody can use that mobile phone it’s best to recycle it than to let it sit in your drawer really because there you don’t have any chance of recovering the value of the mobile phone.