consumerism current affairs environment film globalisation shopping social justice sustainability technology websites

exporting poison

I don’t know when you last replaced your computer, or how you got rid of it. I expect it went to the council tip, but computers are remarkably tricky things to get rid of. The toxins released in the breakdown of old PCs include arsenic, mercury and lead. It’s an expensive and risky business. Which is why we ship our old computers to poor countries instead. Here, instead of men in bio-hazard suits dealing with them in a healthy and environmentally sound fashion, you get situations like this one in China:

‘Plastics and wires are burned in the open; soldered circuit boards are melted and burnt; lead-contaminated cathode ray tubes are dumped. Observers reported seeing women and girls heating lead solder in woks over open fires, then using the molten solder to loosen memory chips from computer circuit boards. Afterwards the used lead, universally recognised as a nerological toxin, is tipped like kitchen-slops on the to the ground’
(Richard Girling, Rubbish!, p353)

Photo © Basel Action Network 2006

The exporting of hazardous waste to other countries is illegal, under the UN Basel Convention, but since that would mean that each country would have to deal with it’s own toxic waste, the US just didn’t sign it.

And before we in the UK point the finger at the Americans, we’ve got our own solution – sign the treaty, and then just ship stuff out secretly. The Environment Agency estimates that 23,000 tons of electronic equipment was illegally shipped abroad in 2003.

The Basel Action Network are campaigning to see the Basel convention taken seriously, and it’s an uphill battle. Visit their site for more, or watch the trailer below.

So how can you get rid of a computer? Well, I’m posting this now because on July 1st a new piece of EU legislation comes into force on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, or WEEE. This directive makes the producers responsible for safely disposing of computers. So you can take the computer back where it came from, and they have to take it off your hands and deal with it. Will they? Probably not at first. There may be a rise in illegal exports even, but in the longer term it will force producers to make computers safer and more re-usable.

Here’s what you can do

  • Upgrade when you need to, not just because you can. Computer Aid estimated that 10 million computers would need to be replaced to bring in Vista. Most of us can skip at least one in two operating system upgrades.
  • Don’t put computer parts, even little ones, in the bin. They’ll end up in landfill for hundreds of years.
  • If you’re replacing your computer and the old one is still in good condition, give it to computeraid, who’ll give it a second home in a school in the developing world.
  • If you have something to get rid of, call the retailer you got it from and ask them how they would like to take it back. They have to. Some will even pick it up. Read up on your rights here.
  • Living more sustainably is particularly hard on gadget fans. Read ecogeek for great stuff that’s better for the planet.


  1. Pingback: Anonymous

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: