E-waste: A Growing Problem

Editor’s Note: this is the first part of a three part series. The second part is Recycling Europa; the third part is Recycling America.

Report Finds U.S. Electronics Recycling Gets Shipped Overseas

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!A recent investigation revealed that much of the electronics turned over for recycling in the United States ends up in Asia, where it is either disposed of or recycled with little to no regard for environmental or worker health and safety.

The report, “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia” brought the disposal and recycling of obsolete electronics, or e-waste, to the fore, as it spawned stories in such mainstream media outlets as The New York Times. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) and San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) coordinated the field investigation and ensuing report.

With product cycle times shrinking all along the electronics supply chain, the amount of obsolete electronics is clearly growing rapidly. “The 1999 Electronic Product Recovery And Recycling Baseline Report,” prepared by Stanford Resources Inc. for the National Safety Council, concluded that in 1998 some 20.6 million computers became obsolete in the United States alone. The report predicted that number would top 50 million by this year.

Laborer heats an aqua regia acid mixture along side a riverbank in Guiyu, China.
A laborer heats an aqua regia acid mixture along side a riverbank in Guiyu, China. The hydrochloric acid mixture is used to strip gold from chips. All waste acids and sludges are dumped into the river. The only protective equipment workers use are rubber boots and gloves.

The report from BAN and SVTC indicates that between 50 percent and 80 percent of electronics collected in the western United States for recycling is shipped overseas. “While there are many e-waste recyclers who espouse and practice sincere environmental ethics … there are many others whose recycling claims offer false solutions: recycling via export directly or indirectly through brokers,” the report stated.

BAN and SVTC acknowledge it is tough to precisely track how much e-waste is getting shipped overseas for recycling or disposal. Under the global Harmonized Tariff System, exported obsolete electronics are classified the same as new electronics. But electronics recycling industry insiders acknowledge that overseas disposal frequently occurs. “It is a big problem, and unfortunately there are no international or federal regulations on what goes on,” said Richard Campbell, senior VP of DMC. The Electronics Recycling Co. DMC is an ISO 14000-certified company that only deals with institutional and large corporate customers. It does all of its recycling and resource recovery domestically, guaranteeing customers immunity from disposal-related liability and that it won’t dispose of electronics in landfills, Campbell said.

But some companies presenting themselves as recyclers merely arrange to have waste shipped overseas, Campbell noted. He estimated that between 50 percent to 60 percent of domestic e-waste gets exported, adding that the number could be higher. “Some people make no bones about doing this,” he said. “It’s no secret it’s been going on for a long time.”

BAN and SVTC found that the bulk of e-waste exports end up in China for disposal and recycling. It is lax enforcement of laws combined with cheap labor and favorable U.S. export laws that encourage the problem, the environmental groups’ report said.

BAN investigator Clement Lam takes a soil sample along a riverside near Guiyu, China, where circuit boards were treated with acid and burned.
BAN investigator Clement Lam takes a soil sample along a riverside near Guiyu, China, where circuit boards were treated with acid and burned.

With the cooperation of environmental groups in China, Pakistan and India, BAN attempted to document the conditions under which this e-waste was being recycled or disposed as well as the conditions of the work environment of these facilities overseas. It closely examined a processing center in Guiyu, China, conducting interviews, taking video and still photographs, and taking sediment, soil and water samples in and near Guiyu.

While the groups acknowledged that the study was not a comprehensive investigation, it nevertheless uncovered significant problems in all three countries. Investigators were furthermore able to identify the source of much of the e-waste that they saw, thanks to institutional labels, markings and maintenance stickers and phone numbers on PCs and peripherals.

Investigators found significant groundwater contaminants in Guiyu, contaminants that corresponded closely to the materials found in electronics. “A tremendous amount of imported e-waste material and process residues are not recycled but simply dumped in open fields, along riverbanks, ponds, wetlands, in rivers and in irrigation ditches,” the report said.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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