By Richard Black
BBC science correspondent
Computer waste is still being dumped in developing nations in contravention of the Basel Convention, an investigation by the BBC Earth Files programme shows.
Much of the west's e-waste still heads east
The research reveals both companies and governments are flouting the treaty designed to regulate the shipment and disposal of hazardous materials.
Posing as an Irish computer shop, Earth Files found US firms willing to assist in the evasion of Basel regulations.
E-waste is a mounting problem with much
of it dealt with in India and China.
About 130 million computers will be manufactured and sold this year, and turnover is fast.
The concern is that too many of the discarded machines are ending up in developing countries to be dismantled in ways that are damaging to the environment and to the health of the workers who take them apart.
An old-fashioned cathode ray tube monitor, for example, can contain 2kg of lead.
"The main danger associated with lead is that it's bio-accumulative; in particular, it accumulates in the brain," says Jeff Cooper, a toxicologist with the International Solid Waste Association.
1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder
2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards
3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier
6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetivity
9: Mercury in switches and housing
"Then we've got other products such as cadmium, a poison; again, it's very bio-accumulative, particularly in the bone structure.
"If you've got young people exposed, it will actually impair the proper development of the skeleton."
Other potentially hazardous materials include arsenic, antimony, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants.
Because of concerns like this, a number of western countries have made it illegal to dump old computers in landfill sites.
They have to be recycled, a process which costs tens of dollars per computer.
But some companies choose a cheaper option - exporting them to developing countries where regulations on processing are either non-existent or ignored.
Earth Files went to the Silampur district in Old Delhi, a hub of the disposal industry in India.
"It's a very organised business in an unorganised way," says Kishore Wankhade, of the environmental group Toxics Link.
"The area consists of a lot of household industries; there are copper extracting units, there are computer dismantling units, there are metal recycling units.
"Most people have four rooms in their house, and they use one as a dismantling place."
Some of the processes used to extract metals involve concentrated acids, while plastics may be simply burnt.
"The problems are very severe, mainly because people haven't got sufficient money to buy the necessary equipment," comments Jeff Cooper.
"You've got lead being taken on to people's clothing, you've got lead being taken on to people's hands.
"Quite often in these small workshops people will have small smelters or ovens in such situations where there is no fume extraction; so not only have people got this waste in solid form, they're also breathing it in."
At a price
It is this sort of situation which the Basel Convention On The Transboundary Movements Of Hazardous Wastes And Their Disposal is designed to prevent.
Basel came into force in 1992, and has been ratified by 159 countries.
Companies in western nations that have ratified the Convention - only the US has not ratified - cannot export non-working computer equipment unless they go through a complex government-level process.
Old electronics need care when recycled
This is supposed to ensure the waste will be disposed of properly in the importing country.
To investigate how things work in practice, the BBC World Service's Earth Files set up a false online identity posing as a western computer shop which wanted to get rid of unwanted equipment, and sent e-mails to a number of companies which we suspected of exporting to Asia.
"Dear Sir/Madam," we wrote, "I run a computer business just near Dublin, Ireland.
"We have a lot of second-hand CRT monitors, servers, hard disk drives, motherboards, etc.
"We are looking for a new business partner to buy this stuff. Could you let me know if you might be interested and what sort of prices you would be paying per container."
All too easy
Four companies responded, and two were interested enough to pursue negotiations to an advanced stage.
Both are based in the United States, and export to partners in Hong Kong.
As China has ratified the Basel Convention, it is meant to turn back any shipments of e-waste from other ratifying countries which have not gone through the full Convention procedures, and it is barred from importing any consignments from nations which, like the US, have not ratified.
We made it clear that some of our units did not work, and that we had no intention of going through Basel Convention procedures.
"According to the law here, we have to go through heaps of paperwork if we ship anything at all which doesn't work, even if it's one monitor in a batch of 500," we wrote.
"So I really need to know that you do get the stuff through customs your end whether it's all working or not." They told us it would be easy.
"As regards to customs, in HK we have had no problems; I ship about 100 containers a month to HK at this point," wrote one; while the other said: "Don't worry about customs issue; I have already exported a large quantity of containers to Hong Kong, and [there's never a] problem. Please trust me."
Asked how the containers are cleared through customs, the companies were less forthcoming.
One answer could be that the sheer volume of trade is beyond the capacity of customs officials. Hong Kong, for example, handles over 10 million containers per year.
Campaigners believe the trade is putting people's health at risk (Image by BAN)
Another answer is that incentives are offered to ease the passage of certain consignments.
The Seattle-based environmental group the Basel Action Network (BAN) has collected some graphic examples.
"Brokers tell us they carefully tape $100 bills just inside the back of the shipping container so when the customs agents open up these containers, they've got their bribe and it can just pass on through," says BAN's Sarah Westervelt.
"The containers really are full of all sorts of things, including, we're told - though it's a little hard to believe - bribes as big as a Mercedes."
Next year, a new European Union directive called WEEE - Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment - comes into force which should make e-waste dumping from Europe a thing of the past.
Manufacturers will have to take back unwanted computers and make sure they are properly recycled.
But negotiations on setting up a similar scheme in the United States, which environmental groups regard as the principal source of e-waste, have stalled.
The US government's Environmental Protection Agency declined to tell us why - but Ted Smith from the Californian environmental group the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has a simple explanation.
"We think it's because of pressure from the electronics industry," he said.
"This is a very big deal to them. They realise that they have an enormous problem on their hands, and they know the cheapest way to solve that problem is for them to continue to export."
Some companies we contacted say they are aware of the issue and would support a take-back scheme in the United States similar to Europe's WEEE directive. Others remain implacably opposed.
Without a significant change of stance by the US, and without enforcement of Basel Convention regulations by other nations, campaigners fear the e-waste trade will continue to grow - with all the health and environmental consequences that implies for districts like Silampur.