Monday, 16 May 2011

A Digital Dumping Ground

We all know how important recycling is today, and what councils don't take away as part of kerbside schemes can be left at Household Waste Recycling Centres (that's tips, or dumps, to you and me) where it is carefully sorted and dealt with according to the latest regulations. Our local HWRC amazes me with its efficiency every time I go there. It's open seven days a week and superbly staffed - there's always someone available to help and to make sure everything's sorted properly and put in the correct areas. The county council provides an excellent document detailing what happens to different types of waste after it's left, and I really can't fault it. There are HWRCs like this in every county, nationwide, so there's no excuse for our rubbish to go anywhere else.

But it turns out not all recycling schemes are entirely honest about where their waste goes. Today's blog was going to be about all the things I've been up to in the garden and allotment over the weekend, but I saw a horrifying report on the news this morning that changed my plans.

Somehow, 100,000 tons of electrical and electronic waste is slipping out of the system here in the UK and ending up dumped illegally in Western Africa and South Asia. It's not just the UK either; it's estimated that only one third of the EU's electrical waste is being dealt with according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, and plenty of American waste ends up in these places too. And it's hardly a new thing; it's an 'industry' that began nearly ten years ago.

Why? 

Well, recycling's expensive.

The stuff is sent to poor developing countries under the guise of donations of second-hand goods - or even sold as such. Much of the broken equipment is sold on as fully-functioning in shops and markets. The rest is simply dumped, and adults and children in slums scavenge their livings by dismantling the equipment with their bare hands, stripping out copper, aluminium and other metals for resale, and burning the rest. These workers - and their communities, and the environment at large - are exposed to heavy metals such as lead and mercury, hazardous toxic smoke from the burning plastic, and poisonous leaching chemicals such as cyanide. Their air, soil and rivers are seriously polluted, and their health at risk daily.



The BBC news article can be found here. Tonight's Panorama at 8.30pm also covers the subject.

I feel so helpless when I read about stuff like this. I'm doing 'the right thing' with all my rubbish, and for what? If governments, councils and the waste companies responsible for the bottom-line stuff won't do their bit, and if manufacturers of goods won't take responsibility for their safe disposal, what can I do? 

The only answer - all right, save radical activism or a career in politics - is "don't throw anything away". Which ultimately comes down to "don't buy anything you will ultimately have to throw away". Effective but extreme, and of course in reality the few that adopt this attitude are too small a proportion of the developed world to make any kind of difference. Except to their own consciences of course - not an unworthy cause.

But we can try, can't we? Think a little more when we buy things about where they will end up? Care for what we have a little better? Think a little more before we toss things away? Frankly, right now I'm seriously impelled to keep my electronic rubbish next time something breaks down or wears out. I'd genuinely rather it was neatly stacked in a cellar or a shed down the garden, under a nice green roof perhaps, than smashed to pieces and burning on someone else's doorstep. It's my waste, after all.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Not only that, but stolen metal - lead off roofs, for instance, - is shipped abroad, with next to no chance of recovery even if it's marked. It's become a major problem for churches locally; a lot of them have lead flashing on the roofs, and an initiative to mark them with smartwater to stop the thefts isn't working because of this problem.

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