Recycling Tales

Fred Pearce's journey to understand what happens to his old computers revealed success stories, but

I have half a dozen old computers in my attic. I’m green-minded, but what should I do with them? If they get landfilled, they will leach their chemicals into the soil. And if I send them for recycling, they will probably end up going abroad on a container ship, bound for who knows where.

That’s as far as my thinking had got when I started researching my new book, Confessions of an Eco Sinner. Subtitled “travels to find where my stuff comes from”, it is a search for the ecological and social footprint of my life and purchases. And part of that is finding out about my waste and where it goes to.

Researching the potential fate of my computers, I ended up in one hell hole and one place of inspiration.

First the hell hole. I went to Mandoli, an ancient Indian village now being consumed by the sprawling metropolis of Delhi. It is where the “recycled” printed circuit boards from millions of discarded computers from Britain end up.

In a warren of open-air workshops on wasteland known locally as Gadda, meaning “the ditch”, I met 10-year-old Rajesh. He was dunking circuit boards into a drum of hot acid almost as tall as him. The acid would loosen the solder and release the copper for recycling, said Rajesh, who had come here with his brothers from the poor Indian state of Bihar to find work.

He had rubber gloves to protect his hands but splashed his thin trousers as he worked. No goggles or mask. His younger brother darted among the drums behind him, coughing quietly. There was a pool of acid in the dust. I was starting to cough, too.

“When new workers come here they suffer giddiness and headaches from the fumes. But at the end of the day we have a strong drink and we are OK. We Indians are strong,” laughed Rajesh’s supervisor, Rakish, aged 14.

They talked me through the economics of the enterprise – one of about 20 around us all in this toxic cauldron, which he said was owned by a Mr Big somewhere in the city.

This was the end of the line in the recycling business. In the local market, they bought sacks of circuit boards that had already been stripped of capacitors and other valuables. The boards cost about 12 pence a kilo. And after dunking in acid, they could yield several hundred grams of a red copper sludge that they sold to a local copper works for about £1.20.

For wrecking their lungs in this task, they were paid 60 pence a day.

Last year, Britain passed laws to increase recycling of computers and other electronic waste. The aim was to cut landfilling. In theory, recyclers will have to be checked out. The computers should go to high-tech facilities.

There is paperwork now. But in reality checking out is virtually impossible once old computers have hit the high seas. Most are sold to Dubai-based traders with India. In Mandoli, they are expecting that the new laws will increase their shipments. That’s a scandal.

But then I went to a Nairobi workshop where an indigenous African NGO called Computers for Schools Kenya was taking in container-loads of old computers shipped from Europe and North America. It refurbished them, installed free software (thanks Microsoft, keep it up) and shipped them out to schools.

The day I was there, they received computers from the University of Bradford - and filled an old Ford van with enough computers to set up a lab in a school in Garissa, a two-day drive away in the east of the country, where they were just recovering from major floods. That’s the good news. Recycling can work.

The computers were sent by a British NGO called Computer Aid International. If you want to donate a PC from the UK call them – but only Pentium III 600 or better, please. Sadly, my old computers didn’t make the cut. Too old. In confess, they are still in the attic.

Confessions of an Eco Sinner by Fred Pearce is published by Eden Project Books, £12.99. ISBN 978-1-905-81110-6