“Can Old Computers Bring Palestinians and Israelis Together?”

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The Story

“Can Old Computers Bring Palestinians and Israelis Together?”
by Josie Glausiusz
Nature, November 30, 2016

The Pitch

Dear Rich,

I have a feature proposal that I think would be of interest to Nature.

Recently, I met with two researchers from Ben Gurion University – Yaakov Garb, from the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, and grad student John-Michael Davis, who is originally from Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is doing his Ph.D. here.

They are studying a little-known phenomenon in Israel: Half of all “e-waste” generated within Israel (computers, cables, keyboards, screens and so on) is informally “managed” by Palestinians in more than 150 scrap yards concentrated in three villages in region close to Hebron in the West Bank: Beit Awa, Deir Samit and Idhna. The scale of these operations are enormous: for the past two decades, 70 to 80 trucks per day have been carrying material across the border between Israel and the West Bank to waste-recycling sites in these villages. Much of this waste is collected by Arab workers driving “Alte Zachen” trucks – trucks that ply the streets in Israel calling “Alte Zachen” (Yiddish for “old things.”)

Some 80 percent of the population of these three villages are directly or indirectly dependent on this recycling economy. In their scrap yards, workers pick through piles of e-waste, item-by-item, dismantling products into copper, aluminum, iron and so on, using “smash-and-separate” tactics. These processing methods release harmful chemicals into the soil and air, such as lead from cathode ray tube screens and Freon gas in air conditioners and refrigerators. There is no enforcement of environmental standards or monitoring.

As Garb and Davis write in a paper just-accepted for publication in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, open burning of copper cables to extract valuable copper from plastic insulated wire – a common extraction and disposal method in these villages – “produces a witch’s brew of Polychlorinated Bidenzo-p-Dioxins and Dibenzofurans (PCCD/Fs), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), which are released into the air and deposited in ash residues,” as well as heavy metals including cadmium, lead and chromium.

According to their estimates, some 7 to 35 tons of cables are burned in the open every day for the past ten years at burn sites in South West Hebron. Much of the burning is done by “professional burners,” young men contracted by scrap yards to burn their cables. They often allow young teenagers to assist in the burning. Health complaints associated with the open burning of cables include increases in respiratory problems, kidney failure, birth defects, miscarriages and several forms of cancer.

When I met with Garb and Davis, they showed me pictures of the workers (none of whom wear masks or gloves) and the villages in which they work. The images are striking: children and teenagers with permanently blackened hands, olive tree saplings supported by the plastic casings of cathode-ray tube monitors. Laundry, hung out to dry, comes back blackened with soot. Olive harvests have been halved. Chemical-polluted sewage is dumped into the Hebron River, where it filters down to Gaza (which has its own colossal sewage problems, as I wrote in this article for Hakai Magazine in April 2015.)

As the pair told me, the e-waste recycling industry is a huge source of income for these West Bank residents. That is why they propose that the best option for all would be to formalize the industry, starting with the building of a copper-grinding facility—which produces a higher-grade copper—as an alternative to open burning. Recycling of stripped plastic insulation could also bring in revenue.

Their proposed “formalization initiative” is in its early stages, but as they write, “as of May 2015 it had won broad support by the community, the industry, the mayors of the affected villages, the Israeli authorities administering the area, and portions of the Israelis affected by the burning.”

The most startling aspect of this story, it seems to me, is that, as the authors write, “Israel has recently formulated an EPR policy [extended producer responsibility – in which producers are given significant responsibility for treatment or disposal of post-consumer products] “without extensive knowledge of the existence and extent of the Palestinian informal sector.” That is, Israeli authorities are simply unaware of the extent of this industry.

John-Michael Davis has offered to take me on a tour of the villages to see the burning close-up, but I wanted to check with you first as to whether this issue would be of interest to Nature.

Please let me know.


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