Poorest of the poor recycle our e-waste

Huge quantities of e-waste get recycled by the poorest of the poor in countries like Pakistan, India, Ghana or Nigeria. Open pits will likely be used to burn larger quantities, or a blowtorch may be used to separate metals from circuit boards, like the one Akhbar uses. Akhbar is a 21-year-old recycler in Karachi, Pakistan. He has recently been diagnosed with chest infections and other ailments, caused by his handling of e-waste and inhaling toxic fumes as he used a blowtorch to melt metals from circuit boards. The doctor tells him that he must wear a mask, that he must wear gloves. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t even wear gloves. “It’s true that if I wear gloves, it would protect me,” Akhbar tells Journeyman Pictures. As Akhbar talks he is sorting electronics in the sitting room that he shares with five other family members. “But I would be much slower. The components are so very fashionably small and it would be hard to grab them with gloves. I have to sort 25 kilos in two hours to earn a little money. With gloves that would take me several days.” For a 10-hour day, Akhbar will be lucky if he earns two dollars. Working like this he is taking 10-20 years off his life, but what can he do? He needs to feed his family so he continues to sort the trash for Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo, Google, Samsung, and all of us who buy these products.

“Informal recyclers often belong to minorities or marginalized social groups such as the Roma people across Europe,” Professor Ian Williams writes; “Harijans in India; Zabbaleen in Egypt; Buscabotes, Catraneros and Pepenadores in Mexico; Chamberos in Ecuador; Cirujas in Argentina; Buzos in Costa Rica; and Basuriegos, Cartoneros, Chatarreros and Traperos in Colombia.

In the pursuit of design cool, Apple and all the other cool brands, have made their phones smaller, more elegant, more curved and smooth. In the pursuit of new features, Samsung has given us multiple cameras in such a small space. In pursuit of fast profits and planned obsolescence, these cool brands glue their parts together, and where they do use screws, these are custom screws, impossible to unscrew with standard tools. The end results are products impossible to fully recycle, products that must be smashed, shredded, exploded and burned in order to retrieve at least some of their valuable insides.

The lanes to the informal recycling unit about a half-hour drive from Delhi, India, “are littered with charred fiberglass, integrated circuit boards, polyphenol fluoride from wire cabling, copper dust and other unidentified materials,” the speaker of a documentary film by SVTC, Chintan, and IMAK states. Polyphenol fluoride, from wire cabling, produces hydrogen fluoride gas when it’s burned; itself a nasty toxin. However, when this nasty gas comes in contact with moisture, it forms the even nastier hydrochloric acid, which burns the respiratory tissues when inhaled, while the copper dust causes dizziness, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea. Inside the recycling unit, “dozens of women sit under a thatched roof,” the documentary maker states. “With their bare hands, they are sorting and scrubbing circuit boards with diluted acid. The boards were earlier soaked in vats of acid for nearly two days. Finally, they were burned and dried in the sun. Some of the women manually remove the last layers of copper. The air was pungent. Our eyes and noses were itching within minutes. No one else shows signs of discomfort. They have probably never had the luxury of a clean work environment.”

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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