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Risky recycling: e-waste poses a serious health threat

Thousands of tons of electronic scrap from all over the world ends up in India annually. Although recycling can help protect the environment, a closer look at the e-scrap business reveals an extremely harmful industry.

Laborers at a recycling unit for plastics and electronic waste in Mumbai

Laborers at a recycling unit for plastics and electronic waste in Mumbai

"Take a look, no problem." Harish puts his bare hands into a big plastic container that is filled with a greenish liquid, which is bubbling at the surface. It turns out to be nitric acid. It burns the eyes and the nose if you hold your head too close.

Harish, who works on the outskirts of Delhi on an industrial estate that has not been approved by the state, does know that his job could damage his health, especially his respiratory tracts. But what else can he do, he asks. He has no qualifications.

A large amount of the world's electronic waste goes to India for recycling

A large amount of the world's electronic waste goes to India for recycling

Dangerous process

Ravi Aggarwal works with the NGO Toxics Link. He explains how dangerous the chemical etching process is – anything that can fetch money is put in an acid bath:

"It is extremely corrosive, which is the whole idea. So when you put an epoxy board in it, then it melts away the board and leaves the copper to be stripped and to be recycled. It can cause very strong burns, and when you throw it out, it will corrode everything around it. But there are also fumes which come out."

The recyclers then sell on the copper from the electronic scrap that has come from all over the world – often by illegal means, says Aggarwal:

"All the e-waste that comes in comes in not as e-waste but under other categories or permitted ways, such as 'mixed metal scrap'. So we have seen containers and tracked bills of entry, which are customs documents, which contain e-waste. Our estimate is from 50,000 to 60,000 tons of electronic waste per year at least that has come in."

A worker sorts electronic equipment for recycling

A worker sorts electronic equipment for recycling

Government ambivalent

India's coast is long and there are hardly any controls. However, recently a scandal erupted when radioactive scrap was found on a garbage heap in the middle of Delhi. The government has promised to take action and laws are currently under debate but Ravi Aggarwal is skeptical.

"It is very easy to stop. You just have to put scanners at the ports and you can stop it. But I think there is an ambivalence in government policy, because the government is saying: OK, we don't want it, but it is good for the economy. So, all the policy statements have been ambivalent about it. I think this ambivalence means that they are not really serious about stopping it."

Recently, government officials have started appearing at the industrial estate on the outskirts of Delhi, a place where there are literally towers of garbage. They have banned the use of acid baths and the burning of poisonous scrap.

However, a man who runs a small recycling business doubts whether people will heed the government's warnings. He says he is not worried at all. Anyone whose business is shut down will just be able to move somewhere else. He is sure that electronic scrap will continue to end up in India.

Author: Kai Kuestner / act

Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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