Discarded computers could bring Israelis and Palestinians together

Nature seems awfully optimistic about a program for recycling and processing “e-waste” in the Holy Land:

Electronics are dismantled in nearby villages as part of a massive recycling industry outside Hebron in the Palestinian territories. The scale of this industry is enormous: roughly half of all the e-waste generated in Israel finds its way to a cluster of four villages in the area. About 80% of households there — including both adults and children — are involved either directly or indirectly in processing e-waste to extract copper and other valuable metals.

The informal, unregulated trade takes a heavy toll. Hundreds of e-waste burn sites are scattered about the region and have polluted the soil with lead, as well as dioxins and other toxic compounds. “The landscape is saturated with these contaminants,” says Yaakov Garb, an environmental scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Sde Boker, Israel, who has spent the past five years mapping the burn sites and assessing their effects on the health of people who live nearby. “Most houses are within a stone’s throw of a current site or former site.”

Now, an innovative plan is taking shape to clean up the electronics recycling industry in the Hebron Hills. Garb is working with local leaders, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to remediate the toxic sites and replace burning with non-polluting recycling methods that still allow residents to earn a living. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) plans to provide US$2.7 million to support the project, which is awaiting approval by the Palestinian Authority. And in a rare example of cooperation, the Israeli and Palestinian governments are nearing agreements to put the plan into action, says Garb.

What he’s been able to pull together is nothing short of miraculous; getting both sides to agree like that at all levels, it’s remarkable,” says Richard Fuller, chief executive of the non-governmental agency Pure Earth in New York City, which will be overseeing the project. The Palestinian clean-up scheme, he says, could serve as a model project for similar toxic e-waste sites in poor communities around the world, where millions of tonnes of electrical equipment gets dumped each year.

In the Palestinian territories and much of the developing world, recyclers rely on inexpensive methods — using hammers and axes to dismantle equipment and burning cables to extract the copper. These techniques are also among the most polluting. So when Garb became aware of the problem in what is practically his backyard, he felt compelled to try clean it up, he says.

In combination with Palestinian and Israeli officials, Garb and his colleagues are attempting to transform the illegal, unregulated enterprise into a formal recycling trade — with facilities that allow for safe extraction of valuable components. Instead of stamping out the industry, which he says would drive it elsewhere in the West Bank, Garb hopes to build a partnership that will benefit all parties.

Although burning e-waste is illegal, oversight in the area is complicated because local Palestinian police have to coordinate with the Israeli Civil Administration — which has military and administrative control of the area — to enter the region where much of the burning takes place. By the time police get there, the people responsible are typically gone. And many families earn their livelihood from recycling, so they are reluctant to give it up. What is really needed, Sweity says, is financial support for clean recycling companies, as well as better police enforcement and inspection schemes.

Garb’s efforts stand out, say others in the region, because there is a high degree of tension there, with little progress towards peace after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In December 2015, SIDA gave Garb and Pure Earth a $180,000 grant that funded a trial remediation of two sites in Beit Awwa. Workers used a tractor to scrape off the black surface goop, and then dug out the remaining toxic grime with picks and shovels. They transferred the material to a double-sealed plastic storage deposit at the same site. (Garb is now negotiating to move the contaminated soils to a certified facility for hazardous-waste disposal in Israel.)

That was just the first phase of a much broader project. In January this year, Garb and his team drew up an ambitious programme consisting of three components: clean up the hazardous-waste sites, create a sustainable Palestinian recycling sector and prevent further contamination of sites. The plan to build a sustainable recycling industry was key to convincing the Israeli Civil Administration to come on board, Garb says.