Friday, August 17, 2012

Shershah The Hub.

Karachi is the most populous city of Pakistan and the third most populous city in the world. It is the financial centre of Pakistan . Port Qasim and Karachi Port connects Pakistan to the rest of the World as it handles 90% of external trade of Pakistan. Being close to the port has made some of the sites in Karachi one of the largest dumping ewaste sites in Pakistan.  Shershah is one of them.

When I was there first time in 2011, I thought my research could start and end there. I didn't need to go anywhere else. If only life could be that simple. Shershah is not only the hub for ewaste recycling and dumping but most of this market is controlled by a mafia. My husband had an idea that underworld activities took place in Shershah so he decided he would accompany me as he would not want me to go such a place alone.

The prices of e-waste business are controlled by the mafia. Prices of  gold and silver are always on a rise. Controlling the prices of ewaste  ensures good profit margins for them on extraction.

Mafia leaders or members are commonly referred as "bhai" ( brother) in Karachi. I was informed the bhai controlled this market was once a scrapper and he worked hard and learnt the art of precious metal extraction and later became the most powerful man in this area. As crazy as it may sounds, in my naivety on hearing how informative this person might be I planned on meeting him. Bhai means brother and is also commonly used for someone whom you would like to show respect. It didn't occur to me once that it could be mafia leader. On hearing about him from so many scrappers I asked one of the scrapper to lead me to where I could find him. He asked me if really was serious about meeting him and I said yes. He took us to a maze of small streets in the a notoriousarea, the area is already known for gang wars, at a end of a street the bhai lived. The navigator asked me to go on my own as he said he wouldn't want him to know that he led me to his place. Even now I did not realize what was happening. I walked to his house which had very high walls with barbed wires and a huge steel gate. It was impossible to see inside. It was the biggest and most fortified house of the area, which mostly had very small houses. This is when my husband told me we needed to leave as something was wrong. I was still convinced to meet  him (now that I think of it it makes me realize how silly I was). I asked the guard of this house if we could meet the bhai. He told us he was out of the country, in disappointment we turned around. After this we were followed through out the time we were in Shershah and were asked several times as to what was our purpose to meet bhai, all the information was communicated back on a phone. It was then when we realized it was time to go.

Before we left, I decided to make a quick round of the huge godown(storage places) where tons and tons of ewaste was being recycled. This place was filled with the smell of burning plastic. small children were digging through heaps of waste to find something of value. While some sat burning old boards on high flame. A man stood next to a huge acid baths and was waiting for the computer ICs to melt and help him get what was of value.

This is only one of the godowns and there were several of them in Shershah

Piles of ewaste that will be recycled.

Acid baths after use they are thrown in to the near by River Lyari or is just spilled over the ground where it s lying.

Electrolysis being carried out to extract copper.

Sacks of ewaste which will be recycled later on.

More ewaste.

Some workers taking a tea break

A boy preparing boards to burn at a high flame.

While I was there I was taken to one workshop where plastic was being converted to pellets for recycling. Children and men were involved in handling used syringes with bare hands.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Copper in old computers and cables play a great role in running this industry too. Copper is sold for about 7 dollars per kg. It is one of those materials that can be more efficiently  extracted from old wires, cathode rays tube, capacitors and wire cables.

When ewaste started coming into Pakistan it was initially recycled for copper as one of the most important metals in these old computers. Back then people had no idea of the presence of precious metals in this equipment. Old computers are a good source of copper it can be extracted from CRT monitors, cables, printed wire board (Printed Wire Boards ) and capacitors.

The processes involved in extraction of copper are
Breaking of old CRT monitors .
Burning of cables
Burning and processing of PWB using toxic acids.
Manual dismantling of capacitors

No precautions are taken  during these processes and procedures are carried using no protective gears and with the help of basic tools.

Old cables being burnt these cables are then washed in the near by water body to get rid of the ash.

Dioxin and furans are added in to the air as the plastic is burnt.

Every one kg of cable gives about a half kg of copper. 

17 yr boy burning the wire has no gloves or mask.

Ash is collected  which will be washed later on.

Copper which will be washed and sold at 7 dollars per kg

Solders on  PWB are melted using blow torch  this helps to remove capacitors from this board. The board will be exported out of Pakistan or will be processed for extraction of copper using acids.

Manual Dismantling of capacitors using basic tools.

Copper extracted lying in the black tray.

Friday, June 8, 2012

One man´s TRASH is another´s TREASURE

This is 24 carat of gold  extracted out of old computer chips

Electronic waste contains 17 times more gold than gold ore and 40 time more copper than copper ore. Initially gold was recycled for copper. At that time people involved  in this process did not know that ewaste contained precious metals and back then ewaste was cheaper. Processor chip has highest amount of  gold in it, said one of the people running gold extraction business. Older the processor,  higher the amount of gold it contains.  Pentium 1 processors are the most expensive ones.

 Intel Processor

Plastic sheets that are present in keyboards  are source of silver ( circuit lines that you see is silver). These plastic sheets are  washed with acid which helps dissolving plastic and silver is extracted.

Processors lined from the least to most amount of gold

These processors are crushed and dipped in acid till all the plastic and other unnecessary materials are dissolved and gold and silver settles down. In one of the case the man told me he would use about 3000 kg of acid every month which is dumped into the local water body after it has been used. That is the effluent of  only one of the gold processing facilities. 

This is a small crushing machine. Old computer chips are placed in with the white rocks and it is churned, in the process the chips are crushed in to fine soil like material.

This material is then burnt at high temperature in crucibles as a result  of which  plastic is burnt off  as dioxins,  furans ( highly toxic and persistent compounds)  and other toxics. Then mercury is added to what is left behind to help in gold separation (to form amalgam).  This is further burnt at high temperature in order to separate gold from impurities  and mercury is released in volatilized form.This is one of the most toxic forms of mercury. These activities are carried out in a very populated area thus exposing the local community and workers to toxic emissions.

Man washing gold.

High temperature crucibles

These are a few happy faces of the people involved in the process. They are not aware that what they are working with for approximately 10 hours everyday, six days a week, might be killing them gradually. When asked if they feel any discomfort or pain  working in such conditions, their answer was "no not exactly". At times they might have problems with breathing and that is when they eat a piece of gur (unprocessed sugar which has medicinal values). It clears the breathing passage and lungs. They are laborers and do not own the gold they process. This gold is processed only at a cost of their lives and $2.6 per day. As unjust as it may sound the profits of this business is enjoyed by someone else but the impacts are borne by this innocent labour force.

Motherboards and chips dipped in acid. This person inhales these fumes everyday, for several hours a day. His solution is the same gur,  it helps keep his throat and breathing track clear. This acid is than thrown into local water body or exactly where he is standing.

Metal extracted after acid dipping. These are parts of old telephone exchange.

Gold plated pins form old telephone exchange which will be dipped in acid  and gold will be extracted from.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Vad, varifrån och hur???

In my excitement to write this blog I have forgotten to explain what electronic waste is exactly  and where does it come from. Electronic waste is any electrical equipment that is discarded. It is also known as either escrap or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). My focus is to study the end of life of Information  and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment. ICTs have been shaping the world where everyone wants to own the best computer, laptop, mobile etc. Everyday more and more advanced technologies make their way in to the market, making previous ones obsolete. Obsolence has played its role in running these ICT companies. Products are produced with a life span of less than two year leaving the consumer with only the option to buy more and discard the previous equipment. This has resulted in more and more electronic waste. It is one of the largest and fastest growing waste stream. 20-50 Million tons of electronic waste is produced every year out of which only 20% is recycled formally. The remaining 80% makes its way in to the developing countries where it is informally recycled. Pakistan is one of the largest receivers of electronic waste.  Informal recycling involves manually dismantling, burning, and extraction of precious metals with the help of strong and toxic chemicals and acids.

I am from a remote village called Amanpur in Attock, Pakistan. However I have lived most of my life in the capital, Islamabad. I had looked at videos and had read papers about how various developing countries have been made into dumping grounds for the developed nations electronic waste but I never realized Pakistan was one of them. My work was an eye opener for me. It seemed like a fictional story and a myth till I saw it for myself.

Where does ewaste come from? Why does it come to Pakistan? How does it enter  Pakistan and most importantly how much  is coming to Pakistan were the most important questions I needed to investigate. 

In 2010 when I started my work every time I googled ewaste in Pakistan I came up with very few links. I realized then that this would be a very difficult task but at the same time very interesting. I remember every time I was in the field and came across a new piece of information it was a eureka moment for me.

My sources helped me discover that electronic waste was not only coming  from USA and Europe but  a lot of the ewaste was entering Pakistan from UAE, Singapore and India. These can also be indirect routes for ewaste from USA and Europe. Various ewaste sources show information about suppliers from China,Cameron, Italy, Western Europe, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Russia, Hongkong, Singapore, Malaysia, China, UAE, Oman, Egypt, Nigeria and various other nations. Million of tons of waste is brought into Pakistan from all around the world. 

How and why does it come into Pakistan??? Pakistan is signatory to various regulations such as 

  • Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-Boundary Movement of Hazardous waste and their Disposal
  • Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent for Certain Hazardous Chemicals
  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
  • Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS)
but still ewaste is coming into Pakistan. It comes in as second hand functioning products. Pakistan has a population of 180 million, majority of which are unable to afford new ICTs. Availability of second hand products help in providing this majority with a reasonable option and  provides everyone with the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of IT ( I just realized this completely supports  the MDG 8 target 18F this could be a justification for ewaste dumping). 

Today there are almost 19 million internet users in Pakistan, which means 10.4 % of the population have access to internet. Similarly 108 million Pakistanis are subscribed to various mobile phone companies. The number of fixed landline phones has reduced from 5.2 million in 2005-06 to 3.4 million in 2009-10. The trend shows an increase in dependency on more and more ICTs in the future and there is a need to have cheaper mobile phone/computers available to meet the increasing demand.

Secondly it comes as charity once a person working with an NGO in Pakistan told me that you could easily  ask for old computers for government schools, who being on a limited budget cannot provide their students with the luxury of providing new computers. This helps the companies in getting rid of their waste and also contribute towards development in Pakistan ( thats good as long as they are functional) .

One very interesting means through which ewaste comes into Pakistan is through transit trade. Following the Convention on Transit Trade of Land-locked States, custom duty is not applied on products that are imported by Afghanistan via transit through Pakistan. Therefore a lot of ewaste makes its way via imports to Afghanistan, and many business men import secondhand computers and scrap with Afghanistan as destination. Once the scrap reaches the Afghanistan border the dealers come into Pakistan and sell it before it enters Afghanistan or it crosses the border and makes its way back into Pakistan which is a more lucrative market for ewaste.

Whenever people talk to me about my work the first question is how much ewaste is Pakistan receiving ???? ( Always an embarrassing situation ) I really dont know there are so many ways it enter into the country that maybe even the customs of Pakistan would not know. One of the ewaste dealers I talked to told me he would go to Dubai, UAE and collect all possible ewaste  he can over a time period. He would then fill up a boat and bring it  to Pakistan. It saved him all the hassle to pay all the custom imposed taxes. Something that would cost $20  this way would cost him $80 if brought through the proper channel. "Why should I pay so much for scrap", he says. If he would bring it through proper channel he would leave his shipment with the customs (as they impose high duties on ICTS) for a year and buy it at cheap rates when they auction it at the end of the year. You would be amazed at the stories these people have. I was, always.

So with so many routes its not very easy to determine how much ewaste is coming to Pakistan. In a famous local  newspaper Dawn there was a news item in 2007 where it said about 50,000 tons of ewaste enters into Pakistan each year( This is fairly an old statistics even if it was right ). 

I thought the right way to go about it would be to ask the authorities. Who would know better than them. They sent me a list which did not mention ewaste: they had alot of obsolete objects, some second hand products and OTHERS (this could be ewaste cant say for sure). So no scrap is coming in Pakistan according to this list. 

If this list was where I had started my work from I would have been home within a week. The good thing is the delay in the reply of the authorities made me go to the field in advance. Here I found dealers with their rooms full of these boxes of computers.

Computer boxes piled up in Storage of shops


This was a eureka moment for sure, though the dealer was not really happy when I took the picture. I asked him if this is the box its imported in, he replied yes. I asked him next if this is what you sold as new. This did not really make him happy. If there is no scrap according to the import list then what was this ??? hmmmm..... How does it go unnoticed with all the legislations.

Talking  to one guy in the authorities he boasted when he said we once sent back two container of ewaste back to XXXX.  I sat infront of him  and wondered what about the rest of it, what about the boxes we see above, where was he when they were brought into Pakistan. Then again he might have not known with all the different routes (quite probably giving him the benefit of doubt).

I have always heard that someone's trash is someone else's treasure, never believed it until I saw how THIS was extracted from scrap.
People this is what is running this business in Pakistan 

Friday, June 1, 2012

First meeting with the Scrappers

In XXXX market I got the information that scrappers would come daily and collect whatever was of no use to computer dealers. These scrappers were from XXXX road. Next day I reached XXXX Road and to my surprise the first person whom I asked where the scrappers were  was a scrapper himself.

My guide and first scrapper (in beige)
He showed me the way to the  basement of the plaza where electronic waste was being manually dismantled. A man sitting next to a weighing machine in the dark basement was there to weigh all the waste coming in and also the dismantled material afterwards. 

There were 3 people working in this shop: my guide, the person in the picture above, and another young man around the age of 20. They were handling the dismantling of mostly monitors and their motherboards.
Monitor casing after dismantling the plastic is sold to plastic recyclers
What these workers are unaware of is that every time CRT monitor is dismantled it exposes them to the risk of inhalation of dust that may contain lead, barium oxide and phosphors. Lead is one of the most toxic elements. It causes neurotoxicity and long-term exposure to lead can cause nephropathy( damage to the kideny). It can also cause blood pressure in middle aged men. Muscle and joint pains can also be caused by lead toxicity. 
Manual dismantling being carried out with basic tools and no protective gear
These workers work more than 10 hours a day for at least 6 days a week. They rarely take Sundays off. Workers have no protective gears or gloves while working with this hazardous waste and are potentially exposed to toxics. Basic tools are used for dismantling. Every time I asked them if these practices ever made them sick and their reply was in negative. Sometimes they have breathing problems but then they do not  have an alternative to earn through some other livelihood.
Aluminum clips used in CPU to hold various components: these are also sold for further recyling

Capacitor from which copper is seperated and sold for further recycling
Almost everything that is  removed from a CRT monitor has a price and is sold to various recyclers ( glass,  plastic, metal recyclers).  What ever is left is either thrown in to waste or is burnt in open air. Most of the parts, old capacitors and copper is picked up by dealers from Gujranwala (famous for the fan industry)
Old monitor casing lying in the streets.

Refurbishers (Interesting facts have been gathered about them which will be discussed in my future blogs)

More monitors lying in the street before they are dismantled
(This is a residential area and the house doors can be seen in the pictures)

Old chip boards that would be sold for extraction of precious metals
Next destination xxxx Bazaar.... stay tuned to find out where this bag of old chip boards will end.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How it all started

In March 2011, I started working on informal recycling of electronic waste in Pakistan. Before coming for my field work  I had found only one newspaper clipping from Dawn news( Pakistani newspaper): a report on Exporting Harmful- High Tech Trash of Asia (by Basel Action Network BAN and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition SVTC) and Scraplife Pakistan (Green Peace) which showed that informal recycling and imports of ewaste were taking place in Pakistan. I had an idea of how it was being done looking at examples from China, India and various other African countries but I was not really sure if I would found something similar in Pakistan. Reading through available information I was able to identify Lyari and Shershah in Karachi city as the hubs of ewaste recycling.  However I still planned to look into identifying more sites. I started talking to various stakeholders of the business including various authorities. It came to them as a surprise that these things were happening in Pakistan , some had an idea and were able to help me with information as to where possible sites of such activities could be. Within the first week I started feeling disappointed as I thought I would not find anything: I talked to as many people as I could, many people  mentioned possible sites but no one was sure. One day when I was in a Bazaar to get my mom in laws blender fixed I saw the computer market ( in Rawalpindi) I went in and started asking them what did they do with their old computer and everyone started replying they would sell it to the scrappers. Scrappers??? who were they, where were they, and what did they do after collecting these old computers. Atleast I had found the first clue to the puzzle.