Despite assurances otherwise, electronic waste dropped at collection sites around the U.S. is winding up in junkyards in Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia, where handling practices are imperiling workers and the surrounding environment, according to an investigation by the Seattle-based Basel Action Network.
Recyclers tied to overseas shipments of e-waste include Total Reclaim, the largest e-waste handler serving the Pacific Northwest, and others handling devices for a Dell-Goodwill partnership aimed at responsible recycling.
The nonprofit group—focused on international flows of toxic materials, particularly from electronics—deployed novel tracking technology to audit recyclers who are supposed to handle these materials using environmentally sound and socially responsible practices. In Washington, for example, consumers and small businesses are told the state e-cycling program—paid for by electronics retailers—keeps e-waste out of landfills and helps “prevent electronics from being exported to countries with weak hazardous waste regulations.”
The e-Trash Transparency Project, which the Basel Action Network began two years ago with help from the MIT Senseable City Lab, deposited 200 old printers, monitors, and TVs outfitted with custom GPS tracking devices at public e-waste recycling sites around the country. Nearly a third of them—65 devices in all—wound up overseas. The Basel Action Network traced some of the devices to junkyards in Hong Kong near the border with China, where old monitors were smashed open, their mercury-containing elements allowed to spill their toxic contents onto the ground.
The investigation lays bare the tangled web of motivations and incentives in the complex and costly business of handling electronic devices, which seem to become obsolete faster than ever. States including Washington and companies including Dell have begun ambitious reuse and recycling efforts during the last decade. But the recyclers at the heart of these efforts operate on slim margins tied to commodity prices. In recent years, macro-economic forces including the slowdown of the Chinese economy have dragged down prices, further pressuring e-waste recyclers. Some of them have found cheaper alternatives and others have filed for bankruptcy, says Jim Puckett, founder and executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN).
That doesn’t excuse the practice of shipping e-waste to be handled by vulnerable people working in dangerous conditions, far from the eyes and thoughts of the typical electronics consumer, Puckett says. Rather, it highlights the need to reexamine state-mandated e-recycling programs to ensure that they are economically feasible for the recyclers, he says.
Oregon and Washington, like many states, allow a consortium of manufacturers to set prices paid to e-waste handlers for responsible recycling, he says. “It’s out of the hand of recyclers what they get paid… and we think the manufacturers have really low-balled them and haven’t adjusted to the new commodity prices,” Puckett says.
As a result of the investigation, BAN has revoked its “e-Steward” certification of Total Reclaim, a Seattle-based e-waste recycler that in 2015 handled more than half of the 42.6 million pounds of televisions, monitors, and computers recycled under E-Cycle Washington, as well as e-waste from Oregon’s recycling program, and commercial customers. (The e-Steward certification program, administered by BAN, is one of two large electronic waste handling standards.)
Two broken LCD monitors equipped with the BAN trackers were dropped at recycling sites in Portland, OR. BAN received call-backs from the tracking devices as the monitors travelled to Total Reclaim, then onto a ship, then to Hong Kong, Puckett says. BAN investigators including Puckett travelled to the final GPS coordinates and found a facility in Hong Kong’s New Territories region with large boxes of electronics with Total Reclaim labels.