The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 21 Nov 2008 00:29:03 -0500
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Where "Recycled" E-Waste Really Goes

Where That "Recycled" E-Waste Really Goes

By Stephen Leahy

November 21, 2008, Inter Press Service News Agency

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 14 (IPS) - Is your old TV poisoning a
child in China? Or your old computer contaminating a river in

Without 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

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-, 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

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

"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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