BANGALORE, India -- Once considered a problem that affects only industrialized nations, e-waste -- pollution from the disposal of unwanted electronic and electrical equipment -- is fast becoming a bane of developing countries.Most e-waste in India is dumped in landfills or incinerated, releasing toxins into the air and soil that can cause cancer, birth deformities and arrested brain development, health experts say.
"We're sitting on an e-waste time bomb," said Shetty Sreenath, who built Asia's first eco-friendly e-waste disposal facility in 1995 in Bangalore, a southern city known as India's Silicon Valley.
Basel Action Network, a global watchdog on toxic trade based in Seattle, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of older machines from the United States wind up in Asian countries such as India and China, where recycling costs are much lower. The number of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed in recent years -- 50 million tons annually -- and now makes up 5 percent of municipal solid waste worldwide, according to Greenpeace.
Just last week, the University of California signed an agreement not to send electronic equipment overseas or to state prisons to be dismantled or recycled. It also agreed to purchase only "green computers," those that are manufactured without hazardous materials. After an eight-month student campaign, the UC system is the nation's first university to accept such guidelines when purchasing electronic equipment.
As the Indian economy has accelerated in recent years, consumers have been upgrading cell phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment, printers and refrigerators, annually churning out 146,180 tons of e-waste laden with chemicals, according to the International Resources Group based in Washington, D.C. These machines contain more than a thousand toxins, including beryllium in computer motherboards, cadmium in semiconductors, chromium in floppy disks, lead in batteries and computer monitors, and mercury in alkaline batteries and fluorescent lamps, according to Greenpeace. India is expected to triple its e-waste production within the next five years.
"If we go to sleep on this now, we'll end up badly polluting our environment and producing thousands of crippled children," said Sreenath.
Thuppil Venkatesh, director of the National Center for Lead Poisoning in Bangalore, says Indian hospitals are treating patients who have 10 times the normal level of lead in their blood. Lead affects the nervous system and brain development. Some of those patients are workers who eke out a living recycling e-waste by hand, without protective gear.
Selling secondhand parts to private computer assemblers is a thriving business in India -- estimated at $1.5 billion annually -- according to Toxic Link, a nongovernmental organization in New Delhi.
"We have seen (recyclers) breathing in dioxins as cables and casings burn around them," said P. Parthasarathy, a recycling expert in Bangalore.
In New Delhi alone, some 25,000 workers -- including children -- boil, burn or crush between 10,000 tons and 20,000 tons of e-waste annually. Electronic scrap yards also exist in the cities of Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai, according to Toxic Link.
Both India and China are signatories of the Basel Ban Amendment of 1995, which outlaws the export of hazardous waste from industrialized nations to developing nations. Environmental groups says there are no statistics on e-waste because new and used machines are typically classified as electronics when exported.
The United States has signed -- but not ratified -- the 1992 Basel Convention, which calls on all countries to reduce exports of hazardous wastes to a minimum and to deal with waste problems within their borders. The United States has not signed the 1995 Ban Amendment to the Convention that formally incorporated an agreement to ban the export of wastes intended for recovery and recycling, nor has it passed legislation requiring U.S. companies to recycle their products or phase out the most toxic materials.
"High-tech companies do more than just sweep e-waste under the rug. They are sending it across the world in violation of international laws enacted to protect poor nations from the excesses of the world's wealthiest," said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "Every new generation of technology ... sends zillions more of our computers and TVs to global trash heaps."
Sustained campaigns by environmental groups have already persuaded industry titans such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony, Sony Ericsson and Nokia to eliminate most hazardous materials from their products.
Microsoft's new operating system launched in January -- Windows Vista -- will make many older machines obsolete and create a "tsunami of e-waste" exported to developing nations, according to Jim Puckett, coordinator for the Basel Action Network.
"Much of stuff that is exported and turns up in India and China comes from local and state governments that are looking for the cheapest way to recycle," said Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "And there is a lot of material generated by multinational companies other than computer companies."
San Francisco delivers most of its e-waste to Norcal Waste Systems Inc., which subcontracts its recycling to E-Recycling of California. That company has accepted the Basel Action Network's "electronic recycler's pledge of true stewardship" to safely dispose of toxins and refrain from exporting hazardous materials to developing nations. San Jose uses ECS Refining LLC in Santa Clara, which has also taken the pledge.
Sreenath is India's first entrepreneur to build an alternative to landfills and incinerators. At his Bangalore company, electronics items are dismantled manually and by machines. Valuable components such as gold, platinum and aluminum are resold to electronics dealers. Sreenath says his company sells recyclable parts "down to the last screw."
But Greenpeace activist Ramapati Kumar says such plants are mere palliatives.
"Electronics companies need to produce greener electronics. They need to clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances, and recycle their products responsibly once (the devices) become obsolete," he said. "Most IT (information technology) companies show little interest in e-waste management because they fear it'll slow their growth."
In India, few firms are cracking down on e-waste.
Wipro Ltd., an IT behemoth listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is the first Indian electronics company to announce it will eliminate heavy metals from its products by June.
"We are committed to phasing out toxic chemicals," said Gaurav Chaddha, Wipro's head of marketing.
Greenpeace's Kumar hopes Wipro will start a trend among Indian technology firms.
"More electronics companies need to come forward and commit to greener electronics," he said.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.