The burns to a little boy's eyes as we dump our e-waste

YOU have to look twice to distinguish the form of the knobbly-kneed little boy hunched over a non-descript silver rectangular container.

The rising sun does nothing to lift the suffocating blackened haze which burns the eyes and leaves an acrid taste in the mouth.

The little boy shivers in the cold dawn but seems oblivious to his surroundings, rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands swishing the copper wires in the acid bath in a macabrely beautiful rhythm.

Here in the aptly named Soddom and Gomorrah, an electronics wasteland in the Ghanian capital Accra, nine-year-old Isaac has been hard at work for almost an hour.

Every so often he stops and readjusts the makeshift cotton mask around his mouth, the scant covering serving only to muffle his strangled coughs.

At his feet is a small mound of stripped copper - a kilogram by day's end will net him $3.

Isaac is not alone. All around him there are little fires burning; children both younger and older are scouring the piles of unwanted electronic goods while women with babies strapped to their backs are boiling motherboards in 40-litre drums to extract the precious metals trapped in the circuitry.

All the while they sup on a diet of carcinogenic fumes and toxins which result in life-threatening cancers, tuberculosis and skin diseases.

Recent studies by United Nations scientists found that the soil and surrounding water sources show a mixture of lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, nickel and chlorinated dioxins at more than 50 times the maximum allowable concentration.

Unfortunately, says the UN Environment Protection agency, these scenes are not confined to one impoverished neighbourhood on the other side of the world.

Large cities in Nigeria, Vietnam, India, China, Pakistan and the Philippines have their own gates of hell, horrible dumping grounds for the electronic trash of First World countries with the skills to pass on their problems and the means to do so.

Electronic waste, or e-waste as it is commonly known, refers to electronic products like computers and computer equipment, televisions, DVD and CD players, stereos and sound systems, digital cameras, mobile phones, scanners, photocopiers, in fact any appliance driven by electricity or batteries.

These electronic products are made from a number of component materials and generally have to be dismantled again before they can be reused in the manufacturing process.

Many of these materials are extremely valuable, like gold and platinum, non-renewable, like zinc, tin, aluminium and copper, as well as incredibly hazardous, like lead, mercury and cadmium.

Sending e-waste to landfill sites not only means a loss of resources but the potential that these hazardous substances will leech into the water and soil eventually causing environmental disasters.

Responsible recycling involves the use of specialised equipment and expensive operational and labour costs which are often higher than the returns received on the recovered resources.

These costs are the most likely reason that only 9% of the 60 million tonnes of e-waste generated around the world last year was recycled and the driving factor in the creation of those cess pots of human misery in desperate third-world countries battling for survival.

Most nations with a conscience, Australia included, have signed up to the Basel Convention which prohibits developed countries from dumping unauthorised e-waste at the door of their poorer counterparts but to a large extent this law remains unregulated.

True, if caught, exporters face large fines and a prison term but many of the containers are palmed off either as scrap metal and plastics or as "donated" electronic goods.

More than 16 million televisions, computers, mobile phones and related accessories are disposed of in Australia each year.

Only 12% is recycled and despite our strict laws for their disposal, it would be naïve to think that some of those discarded items have not landed on foreign shores.

The computer identification plates of an Australian brokerage company found in the scrapheaps in Accra along with those from a British school and American security company is proof of that.

In Ghana, for example, it is often the case that 70% of old electronic goods donated to bridge the digital divide is junk.

People salvage what they can especially hard drives from computers which can be sold to organised criminal gangs to use in scams.

A study by the University of British Columbia saw students purchasing hard drives from an open-air market in Accra for $15 each which were then easily decoded by a computer scientist to reveal intimate details of the previous owner's life as well as those all-important financial records.

" I can get your bank numbers and I retrieve all your money from your accounts," said Enoch Kwesi Messiah, the computer expert who read the drives.

"If ever somebody gets your hard drive, he can get every information about you from the drive, no matter where it is hidden. That is what identity thieves do."

The Australian government points to the National Product Stewardship Scheme as its attempt to promote and encourage recycling.

A key part of the program is the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme which is funded and run by the television and computer industry and assists councils in enabling householders and small businesses in the disposal of unwanted televisions and computer products free of charge at designated locations across the country.

The major computer manufacturers have undertaken to recycle their old machines but the process is not always completed in our state-of-the-art facilities.

More often than not machines are returned to the third-world countries in which they were built either as complete units or broken into parts.

There, where heads can be turned at the sniff of a dollar note, anecdotal evidence suggests that recycling merely consists of dumping the computers in large furnaces and sweeping up the ashes.

To compound matters China and India, with their burgeoning economies driving an insatiable hunger for modernisation have to deal not only with an estimated 20 million tonnes of overseas waste each year but also a growing mound of discarded products belonging to their own citizens.

The last five years has seen the growth of personal computers in China rise by more than 8 million units, three times the world average.

The surge in technology ensures that many electronic devices are superseded soon after they leave the store and with affordability a large part of the package, it is little wonder that we are always on the lookout for something better.

Australians pride themselves on being on-trend but as one of the world's top 10 consumers of electronic goods perhaps we should be asking why products now have such a short shelf life.

Trent Von Deest has been part of Cartridge World for the last decade and seen firsthand the escalation of waste as consumers and manufacturers opt for new and cheap rather than more environmentally sound choices.

"Most good printers are designed for 6000-7000 pages before they need a service," he says. "But now the service costs you $160 and you can get a good printer for $100 so it's an obvious choice for most people.

"We very rarely do services now or repair machines with electrical faults because it is simply cheaper for people to replace them.

"And it's not just the printers. People can get cheap Chinese ink cartridges off the internet for a fraction of the price.

"The ink is inferior and often clogs the machine and it ends up broken and the cartridges themselves are made from cheap mixed plastic and can't be recycled.

"The US and Europe have laws to prevent these products being sold in those countries but we don't so they flood our market."

While Australia has put steps in place to help deal with e-waste there doesn't appear that much legislative thought has been given to dealing with the growing cause.

Perhaps we should take a lead from the European Union's extended producer responsibility scheme which offers incentives to manufacturers to design products the not only last longer but are easier to recycle.

There is little doubt that we need to take action of a worthy magnitude and soon.

Our willingness to embrace change and accept technological progress may be applauded but it is unacceptable to expect the disadvantaged poor who already suffer in the manufacturing of electronic products to pay an even steeper price in their destruction.

Did you know?

Scientists have discovered that Guiyu, China, has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.

Seven out of ten children in the villages of Guiyu have too much lead in their bodies with 82% testing positive for lead poisoning.

Because the drinking water is so contaminated, villagers have to truck in water from other towns.

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