The landscape of Guiyu, a remote town in China's Guangdong province, embodies a collision between past and future. Amid acidic plumes of smoke and vast mountains of trash, migrants scour for valuable scraps using their bare hands and simple tools. Yet Guiyu's apocalyptic wasteland is a byproduct of the Information Age: the workers have eked out a living from dissecting cell phones, computers, televisions, and other toxic debris of the electronics industry.
The scene captures the paradoxes of global capitalism: as consumers snatch up cutting-edge gadgets, electronic waste piles up-and eventually spills into a fetid, borderless backyard overseas.
In 2007, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans churned out more than 370 million units of "end of life" electronic junk, ranging from keyboards to monitors to cell phones. Less than 20 percent was recycled. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that the world generated about 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste annually-a rate that is accelerating as more developing countries seize onto digital technology.
The same tide of globalization that fuels electronics consumption also helps shunt the e-waste hazard out of public view. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental watchdog organization, as much as 80 percent of America's e-waste is exported-mostly to impoverished regions of the developing world.
While e-waste may be a modern phenomenon, BAN co-founder Jim Puckett sees an old pattern at work. "The history of pollution has always been one of trying to find someone else to take your problem," he says. For the technology industry, "the latest and greatest way to externalize pollution costs is to do it along the greased skids of globalization, exporting our problems directly to developing countries. But ultimately we all end up paying for it, with our health."
In theory, international law should prevent the worst impacts of e-waste. The Basel Convention-a treaty governing waste handling, now ratified by 170 countries (the United States remains one glaring exception)-contains an amendment explicitly banning hazardous waste exports from "developed" countries (members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to non-OECD countries. Many countries, including China and Indonesia, have national or regional policies restricting hazardous waste trading.
Yet under lax regulation at home and abroad, the United States continues to pump e-waste to desperate workers across Asia and Africa.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office blasted the EPA for failing to curb exports of junked cathode ray tubes from televisions and monitors. In apparent violation of a ban on such exports enacted in 2006, GAO agents disguised as foreign buyers managed to initiate export deals with 43 U.S.-based recyclers, including some that "publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices."
According to research by BAN in Nigeria and Greenpeace in Ghana, regulatory loopholes often allow exporters to pass off containers of e-waste as "second-hand goods"-circumventing international restrictions while feeding demand for cheap used electronics. Yet an enormous amount of these materials end up in dumps, incinerators and crude processors. In Ghana, Greenpeace investigators recently discovered a scrap market where child workers picked apart "hand me down" appliances to extract copper bits that could be resold.
In Ghana, China, and India, researchers have linked e-waste to toxic exposures that could impact health and reproductive development. A recent study on Guiyu by Hong Kong researchers revealed that crude computer recycling was putting local communities, including children, at risk of intense contamination from metals like lead.
BAN recently gave Americans a glimpse into China's e-waste underground with an investigative trip from Hong Kong to Guiyu, documented by 60 Minutes. Likening the scene to "Cyber-age Armageddon," Puckett says he was stunned by how the local industry had metastasized since his last research mission in 2001. "The dirty processes, the burning, the acid-stripping, all the really dirty parts of it, had proliferated greatly," he recalls, "and there were far more laborers doing it."
"China's growth has been tremendous, and the downside of this growth equally so," says Richard Gutierrez, a BAN policy analyst based in the Philippines. "As the country's hunger for raw materials continues, this attracts e-waste to come into the country."
Underlying the global e-waste market is a cruel market logic, says Puckett, as corporations exploit inequities across borders. In the importing countries, he says, "you have no infrastructure, no training of people on occupational safety and health, little enforcement of the laws, no tort law, no civil society pressure, no trade unions," he says. "All the safety nets for the workers and the communities we take for granted do not exist in a low-wage country."
Cleaning up the mess
One antidote to e-waste is the concept of "extended producer responsibility," which involves greening every aspect of production: more ecologically sound raw materials, less-polluting factories, environmentally responsible recycling practices, and simply making products less disposable by designing them to last longer.
Grassroots advocacy on e-waste has spurred "producer take-back" laws in 17 states, including Washington, Texas and New Jersey, which direct companies to set up recycling programs for their products-ideally funded by the companies themselves. And on the federal level Electronic TakeBack Coalition, an alliance of environmental organizations, is pushing for a comprehensive ban on exports to "close the loop" in the e-waste chain.
In contrast to European countries, where government policies have proactively addressed electronics waste and toxics, U.S.-based action on e-waste has centered on consumer and private-sector initiatives.
Some manufacturers have begun to address consumers' environmental concerns. Dell, for instance, runs a global network of take-back programs to recycle its old products. And following public pressure, Sony has pledged to recycle responsibly with an explicit ban on international dumping.
In partnership with industry groups, the EPA established Responsible Recycling (R2) guidelines, which encourage greener design and waste-management policies. The EPA also sponsored the development of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), a certification system geared toward institutional purchasers, like the federal government and schools. The program is managed by the nonprofit Green Electronics Council, which works with representatives of industry, government and the environmental and business communities to grade computer products according to green criteria such as energy efficiency, reduced toxic content, and monitoring of "downstream" disposal.
But many activists dismiss EPEAT and R2 guidelines for being too business-friendly. BAN and Electronic TakeBack point out that the EPA's "multi-stakeholder" standards are far looser than the language of the Basel Convention and stop short of mandating compliance with international law-potentially leaving open channels for exports outside government oversight.
"Nobody says that an EPEAT-rated product, even at the gold level, is somehow sustainable," acknowledges EPEAT coordinator Sarah O'Brien. "We're all very far from that, but it is pushing those products up the tiers [toward green]." Moreover, EPEAT has a built-in self-evaluation process to periodically toughen standards in response to evolution in the industry.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are pushing stricter alternative assessment systems. Greenpeace's annual electronics survey aims to guide consumers and raise the bar for big-name producers like Nokia and Dell. But while the latest survey found modest improvements on key measures, like the use of recycled materials and reduced toxicity, even top-rated products fell far short of a perfect score.
Casey Harrell, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace, warns that some image-conscious tech companies may be less green than their advertising hype suggests.
"If the companies are going to try to market themselves as green," he says, "then they've got to deal with this holy trinity of designing out the toxins in the first place; accounting for their overall climate impact of production of running their business; and then finally, lengthening their product's life-cycle and accepting responsibility for the waste."
To target overseas trafficking of e-waste, BAN and Electronic TakeBack continue to pressure U.S.-based recycling companies to block e-waste exports. The groups are currently launching the e-Stewards Initiative, an independent certification program that bars recyclers from exports as well as the use of prison labor for processing, and requires the use of waste facilities that minimize pollution.
Robin Schneider, vice chair of Electronics TakeBack, says that overall, electronics manufacturers have been surprisingly responsive. Companies that market themselves on slickness and progress, she notes, "have this image of themselves as being something that will save humanity from problems, not create these environmental disasters."
At the receiving end of the e-waste trade, India, China and South Africa have explored pilot projects to develop advanced recycling systems, though the success of these initiatives has varied. Environmentalists cite structural obstacles to developing viable waste-processing sectors in developing countries: lack of investment, limp oversight, and unresponsive or corrupt bureaucracies-all aggravated by competition from the booming informal sector.
Yet even if developing countries expand their recycling capacity, critics contend that the flood of foreign electronic junk into their ports impedes poorer nations from building up their domestic waste-management infrastructures.
"The question of environmentally sound e-waste recycling is not merely one of technology, but we need to look at the social and legal structure in a given country as well," says Gutierrez, "because the issue of hazardous waste is also a social justice issue."
Activists say those at the top of the global economy must ultimately swallow the consequences of a boundless appetite for high-tech luxury.
"Bottom line: these products should be dealt with in the country of consumption," says Harrell. "There is no 'away' to throw these to. ‘Away' is somewhere."