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Where That 'Recycled' E-Waste Really Goes

by Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada - Is your old TV poisoning a child in China? Or your old computer contaminating a river in Nigeria?

Migrant child from Hunan province sits atop one of countless piles of unrecyclable computer waste imported from around the world. Guiyu, China. (Credit:© Basel Action) Network A small group of people have now allied with a few responsible recyclers to ensure e-waste can be treated responsibly by creating an e-Stewards certification programme. Announced this week, e-Stewards are electronics waste recyclers that are fully accredited and certified by an independent third party.

Such accreditation is crucial in an industry that often makes fraudulent claims. Currently even when e-waste (electronic trash) goes to a "green" recycler, the chances are high that toxic stuff from the developed world ended up in a huge pile in the middle of some village.

The U.S. generates an estimated three million tonnes of electronic waste, such as cell phones and computers, each year. U.S. citizens bought some 30 million television sets this year and that number will be higher next year as all U.S. TV networks switch to digital broadcasts Feb. 17.

So where do these old, unwanted TVs go?

One destination is Hong Kong, activists say.

"I recently watched shipping containers loaded in the U.S. being opened on the docks in Hong Kong," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), an NGO named for the treaty that is supposed to stop rich countries from dumping toxic waste on poor ones.

"Inside they were packed with e-waste, including TVs and computer monitors," Puckett told IPS.

Puckett estimated that 100 containers of e-waste arrive in Hong Kong every day and are then smuggled into China. "It's all coming from the U.S. and Canada but I couldn't see everything that was going on," he said.

Much of this activity is illegal in China. But it is a very big and profitable industry so many officials in China and elsewhere are willing to look the other way, he said.

Sixty Minutes, a prominent weekly U.S. news programme, aired an investigative documentary film this week about Puckett's claims and tracked shipping containers from U.S. recyclers to Hong Kong to villages in China like Guiyu. "We were in Guiyu over six years ago and conditions are far worse today," he said.

The mountain of e-waste grows each day as new electronic devices are created to drive an economy rooted in endless growth. And consider that 85 percent of e-waste goes in landfills or is incinerated locally, contaminating the United States' groundwater and air. Millions more stockpiled computers, monitors and TV are sitting in basements, garages, offices and homes.

So what's a responsible person to do with their e-waste in the face of government negligence, manufacturers' irresponsibility and recyclers' greed?

"With little likelihood of a federal law under the [George W.] Bush administration we decided to work with the recycling industry," said Sarah Westervelt of BAN.

Together with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and 32 electronics recyclers in the United States and Canada, BAN announced an e-Stewards programme this week. It will be the continent's first independently audited and accredited electronic waste recycler certification programme. Dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators will be forbidden, as will the use of prison labour to process e-waste.

"Right now it's impossible for people to know which recycler is doing the right thing," Westervelt told IPS.

Companies and organisations claiming to be green regularly misrepresent how the waste is being handled. "People are being duped by companies," she said.

"Ninety percent of companies in my estimation are defrauding their clients," agreed Bob Houghton, president of Redemtech, an e-waste recycler and member of the e-Stewards programme.

Many companies provide documents to companies or local governments claiming the e-waste has been processed safely but actually send it to the third world, Houghton said.

When the U.S. city of Denver wanted an e-waste recycler, it insisted on a no-cost recycler, and that's how Denver's e-waste ended up in China, as featured in the 60 Minutes documentary, says Mike Wright, CEO of Guaranteed Recycling Experts in Denver.

"It's impossible to recycle e-waste at no cost without exporting it," Wright told IPS.

Wright's company didn't win the Denver contract for that reason, and that's why he's a very strong supporter of the e-Stewards programme, which provides proof and assurance the waste is being handled properly.

"We want to see it up and running quickly," he said.

Westervelt says the programme will be thoroughly tested throughout 2009 and fully operational by 2010. In the meantime, the public can find participants in the programme who have pledged to meet its stringent standards at e-stewards.org, she said.

But what about electronics manufacturers' responsibility? In Europe they are obligated under law to take back their old products and recycle them properly. While no such law exists in Canada or the U.S., some TV companies such as Sony, LG and Samsung and a number of computer manufacturers such as Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba take back their products free of charge. Some others charge a fee.

"With the digital conversion, a huge number of TVs will end up our dumps and overseas," said Barbara Kyle of Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

The costs of handling and recycling usually outweigh the value of the materials recovered, so most companies do not want to take them back, Kyle said in an interview.

And there is the worry that those companies taking back their products will simply ship them to developing countries.

"We're trying to get manufacturers to sign a commitment to act as if the U.S. is part of the Basel Convention," said Puckett.

The 1992 Basel Convention was specifically set up to prevent transfer of hazardous waste, including e-waste, from developed to less developed countries. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that did not sign on to the convention.

"So far only Sony has signed the commitment but we're hoping others soon will," he said.

Some electronics manufacturers, especially those making low-end products, continue to bitterly oppose any export bans, as does the multi-billion-dollar scrap metal industry. As a result, Canada, the U.S. and Japan continue to oppose them as well or find ways around the Basel rules.

Canada gets much of Puckett's wrath for its duplicity in pushing for the Basel agreement, and then creating loopholes in its laws and failing to prosecute when violators are caught red-handed.

That leaves three or four ordinary people at BAN and few others to create a gold-standard recycling programme to solve the national embarrassment of exporting to toxic materials to faraway places that can't properly deal with it and are too poor to refuse it.

Puckett hopes the new U.S. administration under Barack Obama will be more responsible and awaken some sense of responsibility in other countries.

"It would be helpful if governments stepped up," he said.

 

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