10 Most Toxic African E-Waste Recycling Processes

UNEP Study:  The Dangerous 15%

"Risks and Opportunities of E-Waste"
("BAN-shes, cullet, aqua-regia... Oh My.")

Again, it's too bad that UNEP gave "Opportunity" second billing.  I suspect it keeps peace with the OEMs they are fawning over, papers over the embarrassing assumptions about "waste tourists" and "African criminals", and slowly re-acclimates us to the fact the glass is about 85% full.

There is indeed risk.  Not as much as mining, or dry cleaning, but the Center for Disease Control and OSHA do have rules.  Africa needs to gather the CDC and OSHA rules, as Retroworks de Mexico has done.  We all need to prioritize risks and benefits, and do so without hysterics.  Fair Trade Recycling doesn't want to be apologist for toxics.

So let's talk about the toxic risks.  What are the most dangerous recycling processes for e-waste in Africa, India, etc?  How do these compare with, say, dry cleaning, painting, or automobile repair?

At the Pan-African Congress WR3A is attending this month in Nairobi, the deal on the table is the same as Product Stewardship in California... stop import/exports in return for OEM money to recycle.

Africans would stop importing newer material, enforce "e-waste" planned obsolescence laws, and in return Europe will pay them top dollar for a cocktail recipe of sea container scrap... printed circuit boards, power supply, copper, and other scrap.   Something Europe would have paid for anyway, without any such anti-reuse compromise.

Let's look at the 9 or 10 very worst e-waste processes in Africa, and whether Africans can fix those themselves, on their own terms, before taking OEM devil deals.  Mining the metals like lead and coltan for the OEMs produces most of the harm in Africa.

Top 10 E-Waste Recycling Toxic Concerns for Africa:



1.  Burning leaded cable.

Most of the leaded cable comes from electricity lines, not from computers and monitors... if it's a small appliance, you are talking about very old wiring (pre-PC, 1993 Center for Disease Control study on lead poisoning from wire burning and wire chewing).  Where I've seen nasty-ness and toxics and blood poisoning, it's been from burning the heavy electricity grade multi-phase wire which has leaded insulation.  Burning that stuff is really bad (pdf WireCableTechReport, Mass. Toxics Use Reduction Inst., UMass Lowell, 2002).

If you look at soil samples and blood tests, heavy electrical wire is probably where the lead poisoning comes from.  Even if it isn't coming out of 20 year old TVs and monitors, it's likely to be burned in the same Agbogbloshie yards, so training is an important concern / opportunity.  Even if it wasn't so called "e-waste", and had nothing to do with TV remotes or laptops, this may be the opportunity to address this toxic process.    The photo above is from a seizure of high grade copper wire from an illegal wire burning operation in Bishopstowe, South Africa.  If that's what you mean by "e-waste", then this is a big toxic concern.

Let's pay bare wire prices for insulated wire from Africa... no one will burn it if lighter makes it less valuable. 

2.  Aqua Regia

Aqua Regia acid treatment, especially of post-burned circuit board ash, is extremely nasty.   Again, here is CDC, a 2003 study on the risks (the process is in place at electroplaters and some recyclers in the USA).  This is the process of soaking something with gold in an acid, and using electricity to "reverse-electroplate" the gold off of the boards.  I don't see any evidence this is being done in Africa.  It's a problem in places like Colorado and Texas and New Hampshire.  But it belongs on the list - not because the gold chips or goldfingers in the boards are toxic, but the acids are dangerously toxic badness.

I've never seen anyone doing it outside the USA... it's pretty lousy as a method for obtaining gold.  The photos of it happening in Guiyu appear to be a case of cash-flow problem... if they kept the circuit boards until they had a shippable quantity for Dowa or Umicore or Boliden, they'd make more money.  Kiva.org may be the remedy for burning and acid in Africa (assuming the aqua regia is going on in Africa, which I kind of doubt)... helping villages save enough boards to ship for more money.  Here is a good chemistry site for explaining the aqua regia process for circuit boards.

The photo is from a friendly "how to" for aqua regia gold recovery you can do with spare parts from circuit boards in your own home (from aptly-named "sciencemadness.org").   Note, the boards in the photo are ROHS, there is not toxic in them... one of the ironies is most toxic activities occurs with something that has little toxics in the "waste".

Let's offer financing so Africans send boards for more money, to European circuit board recycling processes. 

3.  Solder / chip harvesting

I don't actually know how bad this is.  Electricians and techs in the USA have been soldering boards for decades, and I don't know of airborne lead or blood poisoning issues from soldering.  But the pictures of whole circuit boards being held over heat raise concern.  I don't want my kids doing that, whether they are my kids in the USA, China, or Africa.

In this process, the value is the chips, which are being loosend from the solder joints on the board and picked off with tweezers (over a hot pan usually, the photos of Printed Wiring Boards held over a flame are probably posed photos by the NGO, no one does it that way that I've seen).  The reuse of these chips, as documented in Shanghaiscrap and TechTravels blog, is actually really cool, and in an environmental lifecycle it's way better than throwing the chips away or chopping them up.

But yes, let us document how much of this is going on and measure the toxics and focus on these materials.  This report by OSHA examines the risk of lead exposure in a high-volume USA circuit board soldering plant; it found wipe test accumulations and strongly recommends washing hands and clothing after work, but states "However, during normal wave solder activities, wave solder operators had lead exposures well below the OSHA AL". 

As for repair solder, I cannot find any study of TV or computer repair people having significant overexposure.  But auto repair is a different story... perhaps Africans should stay away from car repair.

Let's promote ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.

4. CRT tubes breaking

No one really needs to do this, the tubes could be thrown in the dump as they are, intact (and that's usually what occurs).  The barium and lead in the glass is vitrified and so long as the CRT is in big pieces, the lead won't escape for thousands of years.  Cadmium phosphors were replaced in the 1970s, so there isn't much risk from that, but by all means train the scrap boys which older Tubes should not be broken and they can avoid the cadmium dust.  But there could be a temptation to take the metal (leaded frit, shadow mask) from inside the CRTs, and that should involve masks and washrooms.

Perhaps the toughest study on CRT glass disposal was from Putnam County, Ohio, in 2010.  It found that decades of disposal of CRT cullet from a manufacturing plant until the 1980s had created a danger in soil, and (like the ash above), the primary delivery was ingestion... i.e. getting Africans to wash their hands before eating.  That may sound belittling or callous, it really isn't -- we had to threaten to fire employees at my recycling plant for eating sandwiches at their workstations!
Incidental ingestion is the major pathway of exposure to lead in soil and dust. According to the U.S. EPA, exposure to lead from ingested soil and dust is best represented by the lead concentration in the particle size fraction that sticks to hands (and perhaps clothing and other objects that may be mouthed) called the fine fraction. The fine fraction is the portion of the total sample that passes through a 250 micrometer (┬Ám) [60 mesh] sieve (U.S. EPA 2000).  
Lead may remain stuck to soil particles or sediment in water for many years. Movement of lead from soil particles into groundwater is unlikely unless the rain falling on the soil is acidic or “soft." Movement of lead from soil is also dependant on both the type of lead compound and the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil (ATSDR 2007a). 
Note that in all these studies, for cadmium to be a concern (phosphorous), the tube has to be very old - 1970s.  And for the lead to be ingested, it has to be ground up very small.  Vitrified lead - the way it is bound in the glass - is perfectly safe, as it CRT in your living room, or the leaded crystalware in your dining room.

Let's offer incentives for CRT reuse to finance find safe collection, exchange, and handling of bad CRTs, and pay for them to get to the right place. 

5.  Fire from lithium batteries

The newer li batteries are not like the ones ten years ago.  The charges on our devices last longer and longer because the batteries are hotter and hotter.  We have to make sure one of these doesn't wind up in a shredder or baler in the USA.  When the lithium in the battery is exposed to oxygen, it spontaneously combusts.  See this scary video.  This was a wake-up call for me.  Though I don't know what the danger is in Africa, it belongs on the list of risks.

Oddly enough, if you google "lithium batteries" with "center for disease control" you mostly find page after page insisting that residents use lithium batteries in their smoke detectors (so they need to be changed less often).

Let's pay for collection of lithium batteries in Africa. 

6.  Plastic

There are bromine flame retardants in the plastic.  That's generally a good thing, see lithium battery above.  But the process of recycling the plastic is kind of nasty and the west needs to make sure it rewards the ten percent of plastic recyclers with the best air systems and safest processes.  Of course, no one is pelletizing or recycling plastic in Africa, so none of this is an issue in the story, this takes place in China.   But still it belongs on our top ten list.

Let's put in balers.  They are cheap. 

7.  Back and Foot Injuries

Ok, this isn't even toxic, but the big CRT TVs from a decade ago are really heavy and you could really hurt yourself trying to carry one.

Instruction and training.

8.  Toner inhalation (Carbon Black)

Carbon black is the sooty powder inside laser toner cartidges (not liquid ink cartridges).  Don't inhale it.  It's a little hard to tell from CDC whether this is the standard warning of all repeated inhalations of all powders (including organic wheat), or whether there are special concerns about toner cartridges.

(You think I'm kidding?  See report from CDC, "Preventing Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome")

Instruction and training... and ventilation, ventilation.

9.  Mercury switches in PCs, printers, and monitors

There have never been mercury switches in personal computers!!  

Let's stop telling Africans there are "mercury switches" in personal computers.  There are enough real things to worry about. 

9.  Bad Programming

Working TVs can cause children to not do their homework.  They expose the general population to really bad political campaign ads.  Well, it's a bigger danger than bogus mercury switches, and we need a 10 point plan.

10.  Toxics Along for the Ride

This is really #1.  As I wrote ten years ago in 2002 (Recycling Today, Setting a Higher Standard), the leverage rich people have is to force a buyer to accept THIS thing they don't want, as a condition of getting THAT thing that they really need.  This TAR is the crucible of doubt for Guiyu and Agbogbloshie.  If you are a reuse factory, and you have a "dump" nearby, how much junk are you willing to accept before you say "uncle".  The average answer is 15-30%.

If Africans are forced to buy from scumbags, because no one else will trade with them, who the hell knows what the scumbags will mix into the containerload?   Anything nasty and expensive to dispose of - syringes from hospitals, uranium, DDT, anything could be mixed into a container.  If used electronics exports are outlawed, only outlaws will export used electronics, and the business gets MUCH WORSE.

Export more, so Africans have more choice of price and quality suppliers.

Narcissism and Grandeur seems to be a uniquely western recycling disease, there does not seem to be the same risk when Africans recycle.  There is undoubtedly a correlation between recycling e-waste and taking yourself WAY too seriously in the USA and Europe.  I'm a survivor.  But the Scrap Boys video interviews of kids who work in the recycling yards, to me, seems like the one genuine moment in the film, genuinely getting the opinion of young men doing scrap metal recycling in Africa.

Does this address the concern that "e-waste" jobs in Ghana are "toxic"?  As the respected blogger Elizabeth Chamberlin puts it:

Stopping all exports of used electronic equipment would mean this man would lose his job. And at one level, it’s pretty good job: it requires electronics repair skill and business sense. Isn’t it better that these remotes be reused than shredded?
However, he’s also likely exposed to all kinds of toxic fumes from the fires in the scrapyard. If the arsenic he’s breathing gives him lung cancer, or the lead causes nerve damage, was it worth it? One thing is clear—Africa desperately needs better modern e-waste recycling infrastructure. Until then, a vast repair- and tech-savvy workforce will continue to sicken itself with toxins.
Just how toxic is repair?  Where is the darn arsenic?  If pros like Fixer/IFixit thinks there are serious risks of cancer from electronics, or serious quantities of burning (other than high phase electric cable), then we have a bandwidth problem.   Does IFIXIT think that repair happens in the same place as burning?  Or does the 15% that might get burned really cancel out the $105M and 30,000 jobs that UNEP says comes from the 85% that is reused?

Is Africa better off barefoot and pregnant than connected to the internet?  I lived in Africa.  I say no.

BAN-she Banshee
One of the most serious and widely read posts from this blog is the Cognitive Risk post.   If you are an African mother, and you love your son, and you've never been to school, you are going to get seriously freaked out by the white man ju-ju of toxic cell phones and internet banshee cancer-f**k.  If your son has a choice to go mine coltan, go into the army, deal drugs, or repair a computer, how the hell are you supposed to feel based on this BAN-She cancer-*&#@ holy terror hype?

The arsenic in Guiyu clearly came from the chemical dye factories and copper mining upstream.   It did not come from testing and repair of television remotes.  PERIOD.

Lead exposure from burning wire and other toxics above are not to be dismissed.  Let's put a Center for Disease Control into Africa.  CDC is used to comparing TV repair to bathtub paint removal, lead mining, etc.  CDC doesn't usually compare the risk of child warfare and sex slavery, there are a few more choices for the kids in Africa... but at least CDC can compare TV remote refurbishing to dry cleaning. ( Dry cleaning loses.    But it's nothing compared to the risk of gold mining and other metal mining in Africa.)

If I have missed a toxic process, if this is as dangerous as even technicians like IFIXIT folk have assumed, PLEASE TELL ME.   The data I have from BAN.org is garbage...they take river samples with no upstream, and wire burning of heavy industrial cable, and call refurbishing a poison process.  They are absolute alarmists, full of it, making it difficult for anyone to concentrate on the actual risks and benefits of trade.  There are really simple things that can be done, like buying back cable with insulation (all the burning does is raise the scrap price to account for the lost insulation weight) as bare bright price, or accepting lithium batteries for pennies on the pound.  Africa does NOT have to choose between repair and recycling, it's a cynical play to keep Africa from becoming the next Singapore or Malaysia grey market.

The real data from China, showing elevated lead blood levels (and no, no arsenic in the air passages) comes primarily from virgin ore mining and smelting.   When from recycling, it's from burning heavy insulated cable, the kind running in Phase 3 and Phase 4 current and overhead transmissions, and some very, very old home appliances.  (Fifteen years ago, at MA DEP, I remember someone raising over and over the question of whether women should recycle "because women have ovaries".   Cue the cognitive dissonance.)

If the poor Africans believe the USA EPA Watchdog Activist hype about reuse and repair risks, Africa will be the LOSER baby.

 (If you want to really sugar-coat recycling, read the nice and tame description of the elements from the mining industry).

That's ten points.  If you want to read something even shorter, see last month's post about E-Waste in Africa, Where do we Go with what we Know?


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