E-Trash Industry Poses Hazards to Workers Asia has a thriving recycling industry that breaks down old computer equipment and takes out the precious metals inside. The only problem is that the metals contain chemicals that are potentially toxic to the people who are doing the work.
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E-Trash Industry Poses Hazards to Workers

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E-Trash Industry Poses Hazards to Workers

E-Trash Industry Poses Hazards to Workers

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Every year, Americans throw out millions of computers, cell phones and TVs. Often, this electronic trash ends up across the world in the junkyards of Asia.

Scott Carney reports from Chennai, India.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

SCOTT CARNEY: It's 100 degrees in the shade. And like every other day for the last 40 years, Mohan(ph) is working hammering chisel against a piece of obsolete electronic gear. He sits perched on a concrete stoop in front of a small shed full of discarded laptops, radio equipment and telephones. After he separated the precious bits of circuitry from the plastic, Mohan, speaking through an interpreter, says that he'll burn the waste in a bonfire later in the week in order to extract the small lumps of gold, copper, and titanium.

MOHAN (Scrap Worker): (Through translator) They're breaking the processors and degrading them into metals.

CARNEY: What processors are these?

Unidentified Man: (Unidentified Man)

MOHAN: (Through translator) Telephone. Telephone. The telephone company.

CARNEY: They're from a telephone company. His boss buys most of the computer junk from local auctions and drops it off for Mohan to disassemble in the mornings. For 10 hours of work, Mohan gets only a little over $3 a day.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

CARNEY: Much of this e-waste comes to India from overseas. It's illegal for developed countries like the United States to export their e-waste to India. But smugglers get huge profits from the trade, so they send it indirectly.

Ms. CHIRANTANA KAR (Programme Officer, Toxics Link, Chennai): It is coming via Dubai and Singapore, because they are not - cannot be called (unintelligible) into the market, Indian market, and it's also been smuggled into the country.

CARNEY: Chirantana Kar is an activist for the group Toxics Link. She's been tackling the e-waste issue for over a year.

Ms. KAR: We have(unintelligible). But then it is entering into the market. And the surprising thing is it enters into Chennai and Mumbai. And from here, it goes to Delhi.

CARNEY: Many shipments of e-waste are marked as donations to charities in order to get around the law.

Ms. KAR: See, if it comes in the form of donation, it is legal. We can take the computers. So that's how these scraps have been tagged.

CARNEY: Port authorities simply don't have the manpower to verify whether the goods are indeed donations, scrap metal or just smuggled e-waste. So India becomes the international receptacle for millions of pounds of electronic junk.

And when it reaches workers like Mohan, the waste poses health risks to the community.

Ms. KAR: They know when they burn these plastics, the dioxin and purines which come up, which are cancerous.

CARNEY: Gold and copper are mixed with the other heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium. And when burned along with the plastic and the circuitry, they release a potentially deadly cocktail of toxins into the environment.

The thousands of people who live nearby the processing areas are at much higher risks for a variety of illnesses.

Ms. KAR: It's been proved. We've done tests in Chennai when the mother's milk is having dioxins and purines.

CARNEY: Activist Chirantana Kar is frustrated by how little attention this problem is getting in her country.

Ms. KAR: We talk about climate change. We talk about oil (unintelligible) but e-waste, absolutely no (unintelligible).

CARNEY: But one recycling company is trying to dispose the e-waste properly.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CARNEY: Just south of Chennai, in a special industrial zone, one of India's largest legitimate recyclers operates a two-storey industrial crusher that breaks old circuit boards into small, uniform chunks that can be process safely at high-tech facilities in Europe.

Mr. SUBASH WARRIER (Manager, Trishyiraya): The main thing we are getting (unintelligible), those working on the field.

CARNEY: Subash Warrier, the manager of Trishyiraya, tells me that there are no laws that govern the disposal of e-waste in the country, but that the company is trying its best to leave no impact on the local environment.

On our tour of the recycling facility, we see men and women wearing hard hats and thick gloves to protect them from the heavy metals and jagged edges of broken scrap.

And rather than use acid vats or uncontrolled bonfires to extract the gold, Trishyiraya exports the processed computer boards and processors to a company in Belgium that can safely extract the waste.

But green recycling comes at a higher cost, and companies like Trishyiraya constantly find themselves being outbidded for used computers at local auctions.

People, like Mohan's boss don't have to pay for safety. And they can offer a much higher price for used computers.

How much will you buying computer for?

Mr. WARRIER: Normally, we (unintelligible) per piece, we are getting hundred a piece.

CARNEY: And how much - from someone from Numor(ph) market, how much do they buy a computer for?

Mr. WARRIER: (Foreign Language Spoken)

CARNEY: He tells me that Trishyiraya just can't compete with the black market. The scrap peddlers can buy computers at $10 each and still turn a profit. But Trishyiraya can only offer $2.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

CARNEY: For now, only a tiny fraction of India's recycling market has adopted green policies. And unless the laws change or enforcement gets better, your old computer, cell phones and that new computer gadget you bought last week may find its way to the streets of India.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

CARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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