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Toxic Exports

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With regulations on waste disposal in developed countries becoming increasingly tougher, it became cheaper to ship toxic waste out of sight to some other country.


[edit] What is Toxic Waste?

Hundreds of chemicals used in industry, and in many household products, are toxic. Once these products are disposed of as waste the toxic substances are no longer useful. Toxic wastes may contain organic chemicals (e.g. phenol or TNT), inorganic chemicals (e.g. phosphates and sulfides), heavy metals (e.g. lead or mercury), or mixtures of both.

Also known as hazardous waste, these toxic components are poisonous and associated with different types of hazards. Organic solvents such as ethanol can catch fire relatively easily and commonly used acids and bases can cause severe burns when in contact with skin.
E-waste contains toxic ingredients such as lead, mercury and cadmium that pose occupational and environmental health threats. Of special concern are release of highly toxic dioxins and furans by the burning of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium in circuit boards; lead oxide and cadmium in monitor cathode ray tubes (CRT); mercury in switches and flat screen monitors; and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in older capacitors.

[edit] Source of Toxic Waste

Unprecedented levels of industrial production have increased the problem of toxic wastes that have to be disposed of. Industrialized countries are facing progressive bans or phasing out of the classic disposal options, namely land filling and incineration, as they are widely rejected by the population. As an alternative means of disposal these are exported to poor and remote areas. Many developed countries find it ten times cheaper to export waste to developing countries.

Products which are banned or severely restricted in the industrial countries are exported to developing countries, thereby exposing the populations in those countries to the hazards of toxic waste. In 2005 inspections of 18 European seaports found that as much as 47 percent of the waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tons of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. About 50 to 80 percent of the e-waste from the US is exported to China, India and Pakistan.

Image:Toxic Export.jpg

[edit] Why Third Countries?

Industrial countries generate enormous volume of toxic waste which is either impossible or extremely costly to recycle. For many years such waste has been exported to third world countries where environmental regulations are limited and concern for the health of the population is minimum or non-existent.

Once these products reach the developing countries, thousands of laborers unwittingly expose themselves and their surroundings to innumerable toxic hazards by burning, smashing and pulling apart electronic waste to scavenge for the precious metals inside. Labor in most such countries is so cheap that it is cost effective to recover even the last screw.

In Delhi, India, 25,000 workers are employed at scrap yards where 10000-20000 tons of e-waste is handled each year, 25 percent of this being computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.

Many of the third world countries are not equipped to handle waste. Enormous environmental harm can occur in those regions. Also few clean up measures are undertaken as such costs are far too expensive for poorer countries to meet. The damage to the environment compromises the economic potential of these countries as the effects of waste contamination begin to show over time. The harm includes adverse health implications for people, lower agricultural productivity, contamination of the food system and water resources, as well as harm to wildlife and biodiversity

[edit] The Toxic Flow

We may give away our old electronic items to a recycler or at a collection event with the best of intentions. But they may eventually get loaded on a ship to China, India or Nigeria. In China migrant workers in filthy clothing recover glass and electronic parts by smashing picture tube with their hands. Wherever possible this imported techno-trash is reused in households, causing enormous health and environmental hazards. Where it can’t be reused or repaired it is dumped and burned in swamps.

In spite of the Basel Convention [1], an international treaty designed to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries, such transfers continue as the US, though a signatory, refuses to ratify it. US “recyclers” can, therefore, get away as US e-waste exports are in contravention of international law, but not US law.

But in an ironic reversal of situation some such products shipped to countries like China are recycled and used to make some other goods which return to the US carrying all the harmful elements. In this way some high levels of toxic wastes had been found in China made jewellery which used toxic waste from the US and other developing countries.

[edit] Hit By Chinese Products

During mid-2007 the United States, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Europe, had been hit with toxic Chinese products. Imported toothpastes from China were found to contain Diglycol (Diethylene glycol), an industrial poison used in antifreeze, but only costs half as much as the approved medical-quality Propylene Glycol usually used in toothpastes.

In August 2007, major US toy maker Mattel [2] shocked markets by recalling up to 18 million toys, spanning 71 different products (including big sellers like the Barbie doll, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer and numerous lines of children’s jewellery) due to dangerous levels of lead in the toys. The US distributors of Thomas the Tank Engine were forced to recall more than one million wooden trains, all because of lead paint.

Around the same period The Warehouse, a major New Zealand retailer, started recalling Chinese-made pajamas after two pairs caught fire. This prompted the New Zealand government to start investigation into some cheap imported Chinese clothes which were claimed to contain up to 900 times the permitted level of formaldehyde, which can cause skin rashes and allergic reactions.

According to estimates, more than 80% of China’s manufacturers are small, backyard family workshops, with most employing less than 10 staff members. A plastic toy that a British consumer buys for 99p typically costs just 22p when it leaves the Chinese factory. With hardly any margin left, the producers are forced to cut corners. Lead paints, which cost half that of safer paints, give the toys a bright and glossy look. The sheer number of such units makes monitoring difficult.

Toxic substances in products may not kill a person immediately, but will cause harm in the long term. And normally people are not aware of this.

[edit] Global Preventive Measures

The European Chemicals regulations (REACH), which took effect from June 1 2007, aims to maintain competitiveness while at the same time protecting human health and the environment. All manufacturers and importers in the EU will be required to prove that the chemical components in their products are harmless to humans. Such endeavor is not only expected to reduce pollution but also bring about a saving in medical expenses to the tune of 97 billion Euros in the next 30 years.

The Green List Regulations [3] governing non-hazardous recyclable materials from EU have been updated to accommodate the wishes of the non-OECD [4] nations. Changes have been made in the regulations to protect these countries from receiving materials they do not want to receive. Exporting countries will also not be allowed to send good to such countries that don’t have the capacity to process them in an environmentally sound manner.



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