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Passing The Recycling Buck

Federal investigators find recyclers willing to ship hazardous electronic waste to world's poor

by Jeff Johnson
September 29, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 39

Piles of burned and broken electronic waste line a road in Lagos, Nigeria.
Piles of burned and broken electronic waste line a road in Lagos, Nigeria.

WHEN AMERICANS haul their junk computers, TVs, and other electronic gear to local collection centers, they get that pleasant rush that comes with recycling and doing a small part to ensure waste containing hazardous materials is properly treated. However, that feel-good feeling may be mostly wishful thinking.

A government report and several recycling experts say it is likely that much of that hazardous electronic waste is going to wind up in developing countries where the poorest people in the world will pull the products apart under crude and dangerous conditions—the exact scenario that those conscientious consumers were hoping to avoid.

"There are about five of us doing it right for every 100 recyclers in the business," said Robert Houghton, chief executive officer of Redemtech, an international electronics recycler based in Ohio. Houghton was speaking at a Sept. 17 press conference just hours before the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a damning report on U.S. recycling companies to a congressional subcommittee.

Posing as waste buyers from developing countries, GAO investigators made deals with U.S. recyclers, who were quite willing to circumvent the single U.S. regulation that restricts the export of one type of e-waste—cathode ray tubes. The regulation allows export of CRTs, but only with prior approval by the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency tasked with policing such exports, and the importing country.

According to the GAO report, out of 52 recyclers who responded to GAO's make-believe offer, 43 were willing to illegally sell junk CRTs for export without seeking the necessary prior approval from EPA.

Adding insult to criminality, GAO says many of the scofflaw companies actively cultivated an environmentally responsible image on websites and in advertisements. At least three of them held Earth Day 2008 electronics recycling events to gather the e-waste they would dispose of illegally. For instance, a Colorado recycler whose CRTs wound up in China specifically derided the practice of exporting waste to developing regions in its advertisements. "Your e-waste is recycled properly, right here in the U.S., not simply dumped on somebody else," the ads proclaimed.

Lead's Round trip

Material salvaged in developing countries from U.S. electronic junk may be finding its way back into the U.S. A recent study in the journal Chemosphere finds evidence showing that recycled material is returning in the form of children's jewelry (69, 2007, 1111).

Chemistry professor Jeff D. Weidenhamer of Ashland University, in Ohio, had his class analyze the makeup of children's jewelry that was purchased at a local dollar store and that was made in China.

One analysis revealed a trinket to be 90% lead with about 5% antimony, he says, making it likely to be from lead in automobile batteries.

In another study, he found jewelry made from lead, tin, and small amounts of copper.

"The presence of a low percentage of copper was a clue that the jewelry could be derived from scrap that included recycled solder," he says. "That is because copper from printed wiring boards dissolves when heated along with lead-tin solder. Electronic solders typically have very low copper."

The amount of waste is huge: EPA waste surveys find that Americans removed more than 300 million electronic devices from their homes in 2006. The equipment contains lead, mercury, copper, gold, cadmium, and other materials that have value if removed and resold but can be dangerous and labor-intensive to extract.

GAO's report blasts EPA enforcement, as did members of the House of Representatives during a hearing before a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 17.

FOR EXAMPLE, GAO says 26 shipping containers with used CRT monitors were blocked by Hong Kong port inspectors and shipped back to the U.S. because they violated Hong Kong import laws. However, GAO found that three of the containers were reshipped back to Hong Kong due to lax U.S. enforcement. Indeed, according to the report, the reputation of Hong Kong's enforcement officials is so superior to that of EPA officials that one of the recyclers warned GAO's fictitious buyers not to worry about U.S. laws, saying, "It's the laws at [the port of Hong Kong] that you have to worry about."

GAO found a thriving international market in trade of used electronics material, describing a buzz of shipments from industrial nations, primarily the U.S., to developing countries. Monitoring one Internet commerce site, GAO found 2,234 requests to purchase liquid-crystal display monitors and hundreds of requests for used computers. Over three months, GAO found that brokers in developing countries sought 7.5 million CRTs. More than 75% of the requests stipulated prices of under $10 per CRT and almost half were under $5.00, signaling to GAO that it was likely these CRTs would be unsafely pirated for their lead and glass and disposed of dangerously.

Its report, the investigators say, corroborated past claims by environmental groups of "crude and inefficient" disassembly methods using "open-air burning of wire to recover copper and open acid baths for separating metals, exposing people to lead and other hazardous materials."

It doesn't have to be this way, GAO says, pointing to Samsung Corning's CRT recycling operation in Malaysia. Some 250 shipping containers totaling 4,000 tons of CRT glass leave the U.S. each month for the center where the glass is safely recycled, according to GAO.

Calling EPA "an accomplice rather than an enforcer," Ted Smith, chair of the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition, urged Congress to pass legislation to quash the more common and hazardous recycling going on in developing countries. GAO's report is the latest salvo in a long-running battle to control, if not ban, the export of e-waste to opportunists in developing countries who want to cheaply extract the potential raw material without having to worry about regulatory oversight (C&EN, Jan. 2, 2006, page 18).

In 2001, members of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit group, traveled to China. At one town, Guiyu, they found "a cyber-age horror show," said Jim Puckett, BAN executive director, at the press conference. "We saw thousands of laborers—men, women, and children making a dollar a day smashing, cracking, melting, and cooking our old computers. The sheer volume coming in by truck each day was stunning. Whole villages made their living cooking printed circuit board and burning the tiny wires pulled out of computers to extract metals."

Puckett said he returned this year and found little had changed. "If anything, the waste has grown, and it mostly still comes from the U.S.," he said.

BAN's report was backed up by studies published in the National Institute of Environmental Health Science journal Environmental Health Perspectives and recent surveys by the United Nations Environment Programme, the GAO report notes.

There is an international treaty on exports of hazardous materials, the Basel Convention, and it requires agreement from a receiving country before hazardous wastes can be exported. Since 1989, the treaty has been ratified by 170 countries but not the U.S., GAO says. The U.S.'s sole e-waste regulation went into effect in January 2007, due to concerns over lead in the CRTs' glass.

SINCE THEN, the GAO report says, EPA has issued only one administrative penalty, and that was due to GAO's investigation.

GAO wants EPA to broaden the electronic material covered by hazardous waste regulations and to develop basic components of a compliance strategy to enforce the CRT provisions. It also urges the agency to prepare a legislative package to bring to Congress and to encourage U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention.

In a written response to the report, EPA said it does not believe development of an e-waste regulatory program is appropriate. It also charges that GAO was overemphasizing the size of the problem and that only 15 to 20% of e-waste by weight is recycled, the rest winding up in a landfill.

Timothy Lyons, EPA deputy press secretary, tells C&EN that EPA now has 20 investigations under way, along with the penalty cited in the report. He stresses, however, that EPA's role is best served in educating the regulated community and the public. He would not comment on the status of the 20 investigations, saying they are ongoing.

Congress is preparing to fill this regulatory void, according to Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Gene Green (D-Texas). They promised to begin meeting next year with the electronics industry, recyclers, and environmental groups to draw up comprehensive e-waste legislation.

Sony is among a handful of electronics manufacturers that are establishing a national system to collect and recycle old electronic products, said Mark Small, Sony Electronics vice president for environment, safety, and health. "We don't allow recyclers to export to developing countries," he explained. "We do our own audits, but we need the help of the federal government. We can't have a system in which 50 states and untold numbers of cities pass an array of recycling regulations. This makes it almost impossible for us to carry out our program."

Redemtech's Houghton noted his firm recycles products for corporate clients in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. He describes a thorough tracking system that fully accounts for every item Redemtech receives.

Most recyclers, Houghton said, operate under a " 'don't ask, don't tell' type of relationship and are all too happy to agree on paper to behave responsibly. But the vast majority of people in my industry turn around and choose to export e-waste for the economic advantages that it offers.

"Recyclers that cheat know they are very unlikely to get caught, and corporate customers who suspect their recycling vendors are guilty don't worry about it because there is very little risk there will be public disclosure that could damage their brand," Houghton continued.

"Corporate clients enjoy a lower price to handle their recycling needs when they work with these exporters," Houghton said. "Right now, there is no downside. We have to replace this with a system that requires audits and enforcement of regulations."


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