For Palestinians, e-waste recycling is a toxic livelihood, but a Canadian is trying to change that

Memorial University PhD student John-Michael Davis teamed up with an Israeli researcher to formulate a plan to cut down on hazardous electronic waste being shipped from Israel to Palestine.

Palestinians want to regulate e-waste industry because it is a primary source of income

Burning has been the typical method of obtaining valuable copper from recycled appliances in West Bank villages. (John-Michael Davis)

John-Michael Davis scoops up a plastic container of soil from a blackened patch of earth in a West Bank village in the Palestinian territories.

Davis, a Memorial University PhD student, is collecting the soil to test for contaminants left behind after electronic waste was dismantled and burned.

Truckloads of e-waste — including air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, computers and other discarded household appliances — are shipped across the border from Israel to the Palestinian territories every day.

Davis says Israel isn't dumping the waste — Palestinians are bringing it in as part of an informal economy that has sprung up at about 700 sites in the West Bank in recent years. An estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the households in a cluster of villages in southwest Hebron rely on e-waste recycling for at least part of their income, he says.

Memorial University PhD student John-Michael Davis is a researcher working to help clean up contaminated electronic waste sites in the Palestinian territories. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC News)

Davis says they typically burn e-waste to extract copper and other precious metals or to dispose of plastics and foams that have no value. He says the burn sites "are scattered throughout the landscape."

"It's illegal and hazardous and can cause environmental problems, but it seemed to be going on for more than a decade," says Davis.

He has spent more than five years travelling to the Palestinian territories as part of his research, developing a plan to clean up this polluted environment while allowing the people in the region to continue making a much-needed living recycling appliances.

Seen as a 'pirate industry'

It's illegal and hazardous ... but it seemed to be going on for more than a decade. John-Michael Davis, Canadian PhD student

Davis has teamed up with Yaakov Garb, a researcher at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to pioneer an innovative project that has achieved consensus between Israelis and Palestinians to clean up an environmental mess that affects both sides of the border.

They managed to procure $3 million from the Swedish International Development Agency, which has been promoting development in the Palestinian territories. 

Freon spews from an air conditioner after a recycling worker cut it open in an ad hoc recycling facility in the West Bank. (John-Michael Davis)

Eliminating e-waste recycling entirely would create unemployment, while still leaving a toxic legacy. Palestinians want to regulate the e-waste industry "because they recognize it as their primary source of income," says Davis.

"To transform it into a cleanly operating recycling industry was the solution that they wanted," says Garb, Davis's research partner. What Davis and Garb came up with is a multi-pronged solution that was acceptable to the villagers as well as the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

"We had to really battle to convince stakeholders on the Palestinian and Israeli side, because the initial response was that this was a pirate industry," says Garb.

Yaakov Garb, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University, says children are often victims of exposure to the toxic residue of e-waste burning. (John-Michael Davis)

The first part of their project is to clean up the waste in the 70 most heavily polluted burn sites and ship the contaminated waste to a treatment facility in Israel. Another component is to develop better methods of extracting the recyclable materials. For example, copper can be extracted from the plastic through grinding as opposed to burning, which releases toxins.

The project offers free grinding to e-waste recyclers and has already cut the amount of burning by 40 per cent, Garb estimates.

Positive response

The response was overwhelmingly positive among villagers, who have been complaining of the environmental and health effects of e-waste pollution.

It's more about regulating and supporting this industry rather than taking an antagonistic approach- John-Michael Davis, Canadian researcher

"When you speak to the local farmers, they can tell which goats are raised in the area [where e-waste recycling occurs] from which were raised outside from the colour of their liver," says Davis. 

He adds that chicken farmers complain their eggs no longer have yolks, while parents told him they are seeing increased cases of leukemia and miscarriages.

While these examples are anecdotal, Davis says the environmental effects appear to correlate with the beginning of recycling e-waste shipments into the Palestinian territories in the early 2000s.

Soil from contaminated burn sites is tested for toxic compounds. (John-Michael Davis)

"This nasty mess of heavy metals, predominantly lead, is a very worrying one," says Garb.

According to Garb, the e-waste contains persistent organic pollutants, such as dioxins, furons and flame retardants, which can be picked up in animal meat and milk, as well as in the water table.

Canada a 'fair, neutral broker'

Garb says Davis's participation, along with that of other Canadians in recent years, was essential in getting to this point. Given the historical antagonism between Israel and the Palestinian territories, Garb says, "The Canadian presence is seen as a neutral, fair broker in the area, so John-Michael was just very broadly accepted in the villages."

A boy picks through contaminated soil for pieces of scrap metal at an electronic waste burn site. (John-Michael Davis)

Davis said that he was able "to see the flow of e-waste on both sides of the border and kind of be a gateway, or a communicator … in a way that would have been difficult for just an Israeli researcher, or just a Palestinian researcher."

The Canadian presence is seen as a neutral, fair broker in the area- Yaakov Garb, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

This project will not completely solve e-waste burning and contamination in the West Bank, says Davis, adding that it may take years to transition to a formal and clean industry.

"But it'll certainly put a dent in the problem and push things on the right way forward." 

The solutions Davis and Garb have developed, as the first researchers to study burn contamination, could also prove useful in other parts of the world.

"The Israeli-Palestinian case in some ways represents a microcosm of e-waste flows from developed to developing countries," says Davis.