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Where That 'Recycled' E-Waste Really Goes

Stephen Leahy

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

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

a law banning export of toxic electronic waste in the United States,
there has been no way to know if old cell phones, computers or
televisions originating there didn't end up in some poor village in the
developing world, where desperate people pull them apart by hand to
recover some of the valuable metals inside.

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.


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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, 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

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

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


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