Recycling Europa

Editor’s Note: this is the second part of a three part series. The first part is E-waste: A Growing Problem; the third part is Recycling America.

Will EU Legislation Solve E-Waste Problems, Or Are They Here to Stay?

While U.S.-based environmental groups hail environmental-related electronics recycling and manufacturing initiatives under consideration in the European Union (EU), industry groups question whether the initiatives are viable for the electronics industry.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!While this debate is ongoing, the latest chapter follows the release of a report entitled “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.” The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) and San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) coordinated the field investigation. The ensuing report found that much of the obsolete electronics collected domestically for recycling is actually shipped abroad, typically to China, where it is disposed of or recycled with little or no regard to environmental and worker health and safety.

The European Solution

It’s been a long, bureaucratic road spanning more than a decade, but in June 2001, the European Commission came out with two directives titled Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction on the Use of Certain Hazardous Materials (RoHS).

WEEE in its current form requires manufacturers to collect, treat, recycle and reuse the electronic products they produce—not only new electronics, but older electronics as well, those that have existed since the beginning of the EU. RoHS bans the use of lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury and certain flame-retardant materials sometime toward the end of the decade.

The initiatives still have several bureaucratic hurdles to clear before they’re adopted. Observers don’t expect the WEEE and RoHS legislative process to be complete until February of next year, after which member countries will have 18 months in which to comply by passing new laws or amending existing laws.

Whatever form WEEE and RoHS eventually take, industry observers here and abroad say it’s only a matter of time until they become a fact of life.

Environmental groups, including the authors of the “Exporting Harm” report, welcome the WEEE and RoHS directives as solutions to the problems outlined in the report and would like to see similar laws put into effect in the United States. SVTC and BAN, among others, would also like to see the U.S. government ratify the 1989 Basel Convention treaty and its 1994 amendment.

The Basel Convention, ratified by 148 countries, calls for all member countries to reduce hazardous waste exports to a minimum and to deal with hazardous waste disposal within their own borders. The United States signed the Basel Convention treaty; it has yet to ratify it.

The 1994 amendment calls for a ban of hazardous waste export from certain countries, including all member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation Development (OECD), which includes the United States, to certain lesser-developed Basel Convention member nations, among them China. Twenty-seven countries have ratified the ban amendment so far, including most of Europe and China.

In “Exporting Harm,” SVTC and BAN criticize the electronics industry and particularly the federal government for exempting e-waste from hazardous waste laws in order to encourage export.

“Rather than working to fulfill the global obligation of national self-sufficiency in waste management set forth in the Basel Convention, the United States is actually investing time and money in developing a program to establish minimum criteria for environmentally sound management for countries to follow. The United States then hopes to eventually promote exports to developing countries that meet these minimum criteria. This work is being heavily promoted by the United States and is being formulated within the OECD’s framework.

“The goal of all of this is to be able to continue exporting wastes to developing countries in Asia and elsewhere via the password of recycling,” the report states.

An Industry Rebuttal

U.S.-based electronics consortia counter that much of what is sold here is fabricated in Asia and produced by Asian-based companies.

“We do not support any recycling operation that fails to achieve proper safety and environmental standards. … To facilitate sustainability, exporting in a globalized economy needs to be a viable option. If we want to put these materials back into the manufacturing cycle … we must find cost-effective, environmentally responsible and safe ways to move and recycle electronic equipment in the global marketplace,” the Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA) said in a statement.

As for the European directives, the EIA’s sister organization, the American Electronics Association (AEA), has been heavily involved in lobby efforts as the directives move through the EU legislative process.

“RoHS has been more problematic to us as a high-tech industry,” said Jennifer Guhl, director of international trade policy. It will be difficult to replace the substances cited in the RoHS, particularly lead, within the 2006 and 2008 deadlines currently being considered, Guhl said.

Another problem with the proposed RoHS ban is that no analysis is being done on the environmental impact of alternative chemistries, said the AEA.

Jason Linnell, manager of environmental affairs for the EIA, noted that removing some of the chemicals cited in RoHS also poses environmental dilemmas. Most lead-free solders, for example, have higher melting points, which require more energy to fabricate. Part of the reason LCDs are much more energy efficient than standard cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors is the use of mercury.

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.

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.