Trashed Tech Dumped Overseas: Does U.S. Care?

africaewasteScientific American
David Biello

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows that most of the 1.9 million tons (1.7 million metric tons) of discarded cell phones, computers and televisions, among other electronic goods, went into landfills, because those are the agency’s own figures.

The EPA also knows that this so-called e-waste contains cadmium, mercury and other toxic substances, and it is responsible for making sure that lead-laden monitors and television sets with cathode-ray tubes (CRT) are disposed of properly and the parts recycled.

But congressional investigators charge that the EPA has failed to even attempt to clean up the mess—or keep it in check.

The agency has “no plans and no timetable for developing the basic components of an enforcement strategy,” concludes a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s investigative arm.

GAO official John Stephenson testified at a House hearing yesterday that his investigators had posed as would-be buyers of CRT waste in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Singapore and Vietnam and found at least 43 recyclers willing to export the toxic e-waste from the U.S. in direct violation of EPA regulations. In addition, unlike the European Union (E.U.), the EPA has no regulations concerning the disposal of other types of used electronic devices, despite their dangers.

“This is a failure to enforce even the weak regulations they have,” says Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Houston, who introduced a House resolution calling for a ban on the export of e-waste. (Sen. Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) introduced a similar measure in the Senate.) “EPA is sometimes not as interested in doing what statutorily they should be.”

According to the report, the EPA told GAO officials that it prefers “nonregulatory, voluntary approaches” to the growing e-waste problem. “EPA currently has 10 ongoing investigations and the [regional offices] plan to conduct inspections at electronic waste collection and recycling facilities this year,” wrote assistant administrators Granta Nakayama and Susan Parker Bodine in response.

When such e-waste is exported to places such as Guiyu in China, it ends up in vast recycling centers where laborers earn a pittance smashing, cracking, melting and cooking old electronic goods to extract the valuable materials they hold, ranging from gold to plastics. But burning off wire insulation, cooking circuit boards and using acid to extract gold all take a health and environmental toll. A study published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives found that children in Guiyu had lead levels 50 percent higher than those in surrounding villages and 50 percent higher than safety limits set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead is known to cause brain damage.

That toll is not confined to China. According to a recent study by chemist Jeffrey Weidenhamer of Ashland University in Ohio, the lead in recalled children’s jewelry bears a proportion of tin and copper that are “consistent with an origin from recovered solder.” And U.S. prisoners are often exposed to the same conditions working at disassembling e-waste for the government-owned corporation UNICOR Federal Prison Industries in Washington, D.C. “I visited a federal prison in California and I saw prisoners with hammers smashing apart CRT monitors,” says Ted Smith, chairman of the advocacy group Electronics TakeBack Coalition. “There are prisoners who have been made ill and a number of prison guards as well.”

As a result, at least nine states, including California, Maine and Maryland, have implemented their own controls on the proper handling of e-waste, and the electronics industry has voluntary guidelines to reduce it. “We have a national system to collect and recycle all products we put our name on,” says Mark Small, vice president for corporate environment, safety and health at Sony Corporation of America, which has partnered with Waste Management, Inc., to recycle e-waste. “We have eliminated probably 99 percent–plus of the toxic materials in our products. We use lead-free solder and changed the design of TVs from CRT to new [liquid-crystal displays].”

Other companies, such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard have similar programs, and Samsung is set to launch a free take-back program for all their electronic products, including old televisions, on October 1.

The E.U. in 2002 imposed a comprehensive ban on the export of any e-waste, along with a requirement for producers of such electronic goods to take back used electronics. Violators face fines up to 1.2 million euros or imprisonment. In contrast, the EPA to date has imposed only one fine of $32,500 on a single exporter, according to the GAO report.

But given the difficulty and expense of dealing with e-waste properly, unscrupulous E.U. recyclers have taken to labeling their shipments as used electronics that can be employed in developing countries to bridge the digital divide. “The containers arriving in ports like Lagos [Nigeria] were loaded with 75 percent junk and 25 percent material that could be resold in the marketplace,” Smith says. “They take that material that was not salable, dump it and burn it.”

He adds: “There are an awful lot of bottom-feeders in this industry.”

But some companies, such as Columbus, Ohio–based Redemtech, have found that coping with the more than three billion electronic devices purchased each year by U.S. companies and consumers can be good business. “Per weight of e-waste, 90 percent of it is moderately valuable nontoxics like steel, aluminum, plastics,” says Redemtech president, Robert Houghton, which the company handles at one of six plants in North America. The rest is sent to centralized facilities with the safety equipment to handle toxic materials such as lead. “If we send 1,000 pounds of toxic-bearing circuit cards, we expect to have 1,000 pounds of materials liberated.”

The volume of e-waste, particularly lead-bearing CRTs, will likely grow exponentially next February, when U.S. television networks switch from analog to digital signals. And it would appear, based on the GAO report, that EPA is not ready to enforce regulations for the proper handling of such toxic materials.

Further, the liquid-crystal display televisions that are likely to replace them contain mercury in the fluorescent lightbulbs inside them. “We don’t know how to take out the mercury, let alone deal with it responsibly,” Smith says.

In the future, light-emitting diodes might prove a toxic-free alternative, according to Sony’s Small. But that would just unleash another onslaught of e-waste if all TV owners were to make the switch again—and much of that would likely end up shipped out of the country. “Only 5 percent of imports are inspected,” Small notes. “One can only imagine how many exports are inspected.”

“We can’t just ship it overseas any longer and pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Rep. Mike Thompson (D–Calif.) who supports federal e-waste legislation. “It should be regulated to prevent harm to human health and the environment overseas—and right here in this country.”

Electronics, Cradle Toward Cradle

samsungprotestDaily Green News
Dan Shapley

As the countdown to the switch to digital television continues, Samsung has joined the ranks of companies offering free recycling of their used electronics.

Samsung joined Sony and LG as the only three companies offering free recycling of old televisions, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Samsung earned bonus points from the coalition for agreeing to publicly disclose data about its recycling program, which begins Oct. 1. Samsung has also pledged to use only those recycling programs that don’t incinerate, landfill or export toxic waste to developing countries — a step that should cut down on pollution.

Manufacturers still have a long way to go to achieve the cradle-to-cradle ethic whereby all materials that are used to make a piece of electronics (or furniture, or home or whatever) can be reused indefinitely. But at least offering convenient recycling will help keep electronics out of the waste stream, and the stream of televisions has been awe-inspiring as Americans switch to flat-screen HD plasma televisions (which, by the way, are unparalleled energy hogs — something that will be more apparent when the EPA rolls out new EnergyStar standards for televisions this November).

Why are these recycling programs important? Now, less than 13% of electronics is recycled, and the traces of toxic metals found in all electronics ends up in the air (after incineration), in the water (potentially, eventually, after being buried in a landfill) or in the hands of poor trash-pickers (often in third-world nations). All of which is a reminder why it’s so important to keep working toward that cradle-to-cradle goal.

Door-to-door Initiative To Promote Electronics Recycling

KUHF Houston Public Radio
Rod Rice

The Texas Campaign for the Environment opened an office in Houston today. Rod Rice reports that organizers will begin door-to-door canvassing to spread the word about recycling electronics.

Canvasser at DoorClick here to listen!

The Texas Campaign for the Environment has returned to Houston full time after an absence of about eleven years. TCE’s Zac Trahan says the organization has been focusing on recycling things like computers, televisions and cell phones. In fact it played a key role in the law that just went into affect last week in Texas requiring all computer manufacturers to offer free recycling of their products.

“So if someone has an old Apple, or Dell or HP, they simply need to contact the manufacturer to take advantage of the recycling program. Also Dell has a partnership with Goodwill here in Houston so that anyone can take any brand of old computers directly to any Goodwill here in Houston for free recycling.”

TCE helped get that passed by going door-to-door to ask people to let computer makers and legislators know there is a demand for computer recycling.

“Our door-to-door efforts in Austin and in Dallas generated more then 12-thousand personal hand written letters to state legislators. With Dell’s recycling program our door-to-door canvassers in Austin generated more than 10-thousand letters to Michael Dell the CEO.”

Zac Trahan says this is only the beginning of work in Houston. Another recycling problem is televisions.  With the switch to digital TV next year analog sets will be obsolete. Currently only three TV makers provide recycling for those obsolete sets. Trahan thinks once TCE’s face-to-face efforts gets underway fewer old TV’s will end up in landfills.

Computer makers responsible for recycling

ttbtceq2San Antonio Express-News
L. A. Lorek

Computer companies now must provide free recycling programs for Texas customers. A state law passed last year that went into full effect Monday mandates that PC makers take back old computers, keyboards, monitors, mice and other parts.

“We think everyone can win when electronic waste has to meet its maker,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Texas became the fourth state to enact a computer recycling law, behind Minnesota, Maine and Maryland. The law applies to every computer maker from Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. to the mom and pop computer making shop.

“It doesn’t matter where the computers are made, whether it’s a foreign or domestic company, if you sell your computer in Texas, you have to provide free, convenient recycling,” Schneider said.

Under the new law, the burden of recycling the computers falls on the manufacturer and not the retailer or any government agency, she said. Retailers that sell their own brand of computers, though, would be subject to the new law. It applies to all computers.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a list of computer brands and manufacturers and their recycling programs at

For example, Lenovo has partnered with UPS and Eco International to recycle old Lenovo Inc. and IBM computers.

Electronics waste recycling has become a huge problem in the U.S., with only 18 percent of all discarded computers, monitors and other equipment recycled annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The waste, which goes to landfills, can become dangerous because it contains toxic substances such as lead and mercury. Recycling computers is good for the environment.

“Recycling 1 million desktop computers prevents the release of greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of over 17,000 passenger cars,” the EPA reports.

With the new mandatory recycling law, Texans — either as consumers or local taxpayers — don’t have to pay for disposing for their computers, Schneider said.

Just six years ago, the Texas Campaign for the Environment got into a huge spat with Dell over its recycling practices. Outside the Consumer Electronics Show and at Dell’s annual meeting in Austin, the environmental group’s members protested Dell’s lack of consumer recycling options.

Dell has since become a leader nationwide in computer recycling. In 2004, Dell started a program partnering with Goodwill Industries of Central Texas in Austin allowing consumers to take old PCs to Goodwill, which recycles and resells what it can. Dell has since expanded that program. It partners with several others, including Goodwill Industries San Antonio.

Dell will pick up any old Dell-branded computers or parts from consumers in its residential program, said Kristyn Rankin, its compliance programs director. Dell also will recycle old computers, regardless of brand, from any customer who buys a new Dell computer, she said.

“We are big proponents of the new law,” Rankin said.

The law ends up creating more recycling options for consumers without creating more bureaucracy or becoming a burden to local government, she said.

In San Antonio, Goodwill recycles 70,000 computers annually and processes 20,000 pounds of computers, monitors and other items each month, Goodwill spokeswoman Dawn C. White said. Goodwill also works with other companies to recycle computers, she said.

“This may be a burden on some businesses, and we want to be a resource for them,” White said. “It helps us to generate revenue, and it may provide a gently used computer to someone who needs it at an affordable price.”