Dell Computers’ recycling efforts raise labor concerns

dellcesKPFT News Houston
Erika McDonald

As part of a national public relations campaign, Texas-based Dell Computers collected unwanted computers from a drop-off location in Southwest Houston one weekend in May. Where the e-waste goes from there has environmentalists raising questions over prison labor exploitation.

Federal Prison Industries, also known by the trade name UNICOR employs inmates to turn obsolete machines back into raw materials. Texas Campaign for the Environment’s Robin Schneider said inmates were being exposed to carcinogens without the benefit of the same environmental protections as their free-market counter parts.

“At a state-of-the art facility laborers are unionized so they have the ability to complain about their conditions and participate on committees that have input on health and safety policies,” she said.

Schneider said inmates who complained often faced retaliation and had no input on their conditions.

UNICOR spokesman Larry Novicky denied the charge. He said the company meets or exceeds all environmental and safety standards. In fact, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet developed guidelines for electronic waste recycling.

Still, Novicky defended UNICOR’s safety precautions. He said inmates are required to wear protective clothing when handling certain kinds of e-waste. Ventilation systems are also installed to minimize effects of toxic “dust.”

But environmentalists’ claims are not entirely unfounded. An investigator with the regional office of OSHA confirmed UNICOR was issued citations at federal prisons in Texas for inadequate environmental protections.

Dell spokesperson Michele Glaze defended UNICOR’s practices. She said Dell intends to stand behind UNICOR and continue to use the company for its year round recycling efforts.

“It’s too bad that a special interest group is choosing to focus on the labor issue,” Glaze said. “Our focus is the environment.”

Schneider also complained ultra-cheap prison labor undercuts recycling industry infrastructure, making it difficult for free-market companies to compete.

“There are responsible companies out there that make an effort to hire low income people of color and they’ve had to lay people off,” she said.

Novicky argued his employees, the federal inmates, were primarily low income people of color.

The event was cosponsored by Keep Houston Beautiful, a city-funded non-profit organization that provided volunteers and publicity for Dell. Events coordinator Michael Cowin said the city was not aware of the labor issues at play until contacted by the CEC. He said the revelation would not change KHB’s support for the event.

“Throwing the baby out with the bath water is just not sensible,” he said. “Recycling is a good thing no matter what the circumstance surrounding it.” He said Dell’s labor issues did not concern him when compared to the “shady” practices of other corporations in the Houston area.

Dell boasts their recycling program keeps their obsolete machines out of landfills and out of countries with weaker hazardous waste regulations. Schneider said Dell’s use of UNICOR raises doubts about this claim. She said UNICOR’s “lack of transparency” means the e-waste could be sold to other companies, which then export the waste. UNICOR will not disclose who buys the material.

Novicky confirmed that UNICOR does in fact sell the waste to companies which more than likely export it. “It’s absolutely possible the stuff ends up in other countries,” he said. “But we don’t really see the problem with that.”

The problem, Schneider said, is that lax oversight and unsafe work conditions and practices have led to serious health consequences and environmental degradation. The burning of plastics releases toxins into the atmosphere, which causes cancer and birth defects.

Texas Campaign for the Environment, an Austin-based group sent protesters dressed in prison uniforms to Dell”s recycling events in Dallas and Houston. The protesters said their aim was to educate people who wanted to dispose of their old computers with a clean conscience.

The group plans a larger action to coincide with Dell’s annual shareholders’ meeting on July 18. A community meeting will be held the night before. These actions are part of the group’s computer take-back campaign.

An effort to put pressure on American electronics manufactures to internalize the disposal costs of their own machines. Schneider said companies will have stronger incentive for less toxic design and greater product longevity if they are held responsible for disposing of the machines they produce.

E-waste is becoming a growing concern among environmentalists. Reports indicate the US will face disposal of an estimated 1 billion obsolete computers by 2010.