Improving working conditions for e-waste recyclers

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Article by By Nardy Baeza Bickel

For the last three years University of Michigan Professor Richard Neitzel and his interdisciplinary team has been studying e-waste recycling in hope to identify health hazards for workers and help them improve their working conditions.

ANN ARBOR—It’s day time in Thailand and a group of eight people wearing dust masks and wool gloves sit around a large pile of discarded metal items. The workers hammer, drill and cut pieces of broken fans, motors and other equipment to get to some of the valuable components within.

In Chile, in the outskirts of the southern city of Temuco, a man using pieces of wood starts a grill before wrestling a tangle of wires onto it to burn the plastic off the copper he will then sell by weight.

 To get to the copper within, wires are burned in a grill in Santiago, Chile.

To get to the copper within, wires are burned in a grill in Santiago, Chile.

In both countries, and many others, earnings from the recycled materials will make a significant financial difference in the lives of these electronic waste recyclers, allowing them to pay for their children’s school supplies, keep their farms or feed their families, says Rick Neitzel, associate professor and director of the Exposure Research Lab at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

For the last two years, Neitzel and his team of health workers, university faculty and students in both Thailand and Chile, as well as U-M public health and engineering students, have been studying e-waste recycling in order to identify the health hazards workers might face and help them improve their working conditions. His work has largely been funded by U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute.

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