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Safety at work

Turning computer junk into jobs

Vast amounts of electrical and electronic waste end up in developing countries where the recycling methods are often hazardous. Integrating informal e-waste operations into the formal sector can help make the process safer, according to an ILO study titled "The global impact of e-waste".

Feature | 18 January 2013
GENEVA (ILO News) – There are few jobs to be had in the depressed Mexican town of Fronteras. So the “tough women” – as they are now known – have taken matters into their own hands, turning junk into a successful enterprise.

Their co-operative near the US border is often cited as an example of determined entrepreneurship and responsible recycling of discarded electronic and electrical appliances, known as e-waste.

Overall, human health risks from e-waste include breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, coughing, choking, pneumonitis, tremor, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma and even death.”
The global impact of e-waste - ILO report.
When they started in 2006, members of the co-op doggedly battled red tape to get the necessary permits, and worked without electricity, earning themselves the nickname “chicas bravas”, Spanish for “tough women”.

Today, the “Retroworks de México” plant has Wi-Fi, a modern air compression system and air-tools. The eight women and two men who now make up the co-op accept almost any device with a plug for recycling, repairing it or stripping it apart and separating materials such as plastic, copper, screws and circuit boards which are then sold.

Parts containing hazardous materials are sent to special processors. The co-op members pride themselves on what they say is their responsible, environmentally sound handling of e-waste.

When they started, US recycler American Retroworks, a partner in the Mexican venture and an advocate of fair trade recycling, flew the co-op members to its installations in the US state of Vermont for training.

“Everyone wears protective clothing, eye-gear, gloves, face masks to do the work,” said Roberto Valenzuela, a community activist who helped get the project off the ground. “We have initiated blood tests to detect any contamination that may occur,” he told ILO News.

The very fact that the co-op members learned how to safely handle waste stands in stark contrast to many e-junk sites in developing countries, where the crude recycling methods often jeopardize the health of workers, neighbours and the environment.

Much of the e-waste ends up in developing countries

As responsible e-waste management is expensive, much of the world’s e-junk goes to developing countries, where processing is largely unregulated, and cheaper but also hazardous, according to an ILO study titled “The global impact of e-waste”.

E-waste workers may be exposed to such substances as lead, mercury, cyanide and dioxins, and health risks include breathing difficulties, choking, pneumonitis, tremors, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma and even death.
“Electronic products often contain several consistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances, including heavy metals such as lead, nickel, chromium and mercury and persistent organic pollutants”
The global impact of e-waste - ILO report

But, “simply banning the shipment of e-waste to developing countries is not the solution, as recycling provides employment for hundreds of thousands of people who live in poverty,” says David Seligson, an ILO expert on e-waste. “In addition, developing countries are already themselves generating huge amounts of e-waste. What is needed is to transform informal e-waste recycling operations and integrate them into the formal sector while improving methods and working conditions.”

Regulations specific to this relatively new waste stream are needed, while financial incentives for informal recyclers not to engage in destructive processes can play a significant role in making the sector safer.

Creating associations, small businesses or cooperatives also can be an important step, as this allows for formal registration and certification of e-waste recyclers.

For the members of Retroworks de México, the creation of a co-op has been life-changing. “Before, I would sell tamales and other meals people ordered, but this didn’t put food on my table every day. That is no longer the case: now I have secure work. I know that I will get paid at the end of the week,” co-op member Virginia Ponce said in a telephone interview.

Ponce would like to see the enterprise expand. “We hope to grow. We hope to generate more jobs.”