Future

E-Trash: Stemming The Tide Of Global Trade Of High-Tech Toxic Waste

Computers, cell phones and other electronic goods have notoriously short shelf lives. As a result they generate a tremendous amount of waste, much of it toxic. What happens to all that hazardous material? Much of it gets shipped overseas – to places like

Electronic waste is piling up.
Electronic waste is piling up.
Gilles van Kote

SEATTLE A strange ceremony took place earlier this summer on the fourth floor of a small office building in the center of Seattle, this famously forward-looking city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Important executives from the South Korean consumer electronics group LG had traveled there to sign an agreement with the Basel Action Network (BAN), an American NGO that opposes the international trade of toxic waste, especially waste derived from computer and electronic products, or WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment).

"It's historical," said BAN founder Jim Puckett during the July 26 event, when LG committed itself to working only with certified recycling firms to take care of its toxic waste. In doing so, LG agreed to be part of the "e-Stewards' program, which BAN launched in 2010. Currently about 20 firms, including Bank of America and the U.S. branch of Samsung, have made the same pledge and thus been granted "e-Stewards' labels.

"People often ask me why we collaborate with firms like these, which don't really have a reputation for defending the environment," says Puckett. "I answer these questions by saying that once these firms get involved in this process, they are forced to reflect on their whole production chain and on its impact on the environment."

"The corporations are not perfect, but, in the past years, we have made more progress by working directly with these firms than by trying to put pressure on the American administration, even since President Barack Obama came to power."

BAN's primary concern is the export of toxic waste from industrial countries to Asia or Africa, where the products are treated – or often just burnt – with little regard for the environmental or health risks involved.

America leads rat pack

The United States has a particularly bad reputation when it comes to this kind of toxic trading. It is the world's top producer and exporter of electronic waste and it has never ratified the 1989 Convention of Basel, which regulates the "transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal." BAN estimates that between 50 and 100 WEEE containers travel everyday – quite legally –from the United States to Hong Kong, Asia's principal port of entry.

The European Union, in contrast, decided in 1997 to forbid the export of dangerous waste to countries that are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a wealthy nations club.

Puckett, a former film director, began to take an interest in industrial pollution after studying the unclear waters of Washington's Puget Sound, a complex system of interconnected marine waterways and basins close to Seattle. He then joined Greenpeace, led a campaign for the tightening of the Basel Convention and became a crusader against WEEE.

"I created BAN in 1997 because we needed to turn theory into practice. Industrialized countries and their firms could not continue using free trade and globalization as a pretext to externalize their coasts at the expense of the poorest," says Puckett. "I started in the basement of my house in Seattle. BAN began to make a name for itself when we started focusing on WEEE, which affects everybody, firms and consumers, at different levels."

His method is simple: go into the field, collect personal accounts (using a hidden camera if necessary) and then use the documents to put pressure on the firms. He can explain in details the horrifying conditions by which computers, TV sets and other kinds of devices coming from the West are cut up in China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Ghana by people working with absolutely no protection. People sometimes work in open garbage dumps where they breath in toxic fumes everyday and wade about in waters fouled by heavy metal contaminants.

The certified recycling companies that participate in the "e-Stewards' program commit themselves not to export to foreign countries the waste that has been entrusted to their care. Instead they agree to treat it themselves, using techniques that respect both the environment and take into account health risks.

There are about 50 certified recyclers in North America. Participating firms finance a little more than a half of BAN's annual budget of 1 million dollars through fees they pay to enjoy the "e-Stewards' label. The program aims to expand internationally and BAN plans to open an office in Brussels.

Indeed, Europe is not as virtuous as it seems. WEEE materials are trafficked illegally, with some exporters using fake declarations. According to Puckett, one common practice is to ship electronic waste under the guise that the machines are "second-hand" goods than can then be resold. In reality, the products are just pure garbage destined for the dump. "The companies just want to get rid of the WEEE," the BAN head says.

Read the original article in French

Photo - CP

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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