Few Rules for Recycling Electronics

New York Times
Tom Zeller Jr.

NEW YORK — Jeffrey L. Nixon, the owner of an electronics-recycling company called EarthECycle, says he has been unfairly painted as a purveyor of electronic waste to developing nations already choking on the rich world’s discarded — and toxic — gadgetry.

Among other sorts of equipment reclamation, Mr. Nixon’s company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, offers an attractive fund-raising opportunity for charities. In return for the charities’ sponsoring and orchestrating of electronics recycling events in their local communities, during which consumers can drop off their old computers, keyboards, printers and the like, EarthECycle not only hauls away the equipment, it promises to pay cash — often in the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how much equipment is collected — to the charitable organizers.
He can do this, Mr. Nixon said, because he is able to resell the equipment — for reuse, repair or recycling of parts — on a bustling global market.

“Everybody wins all around,” Mr. Nixon told me in a phone call Friday.

Not everyone agrees. In a scathing report published early last week, the Basel Action Network, or BAN, an advocacy group based in Seattle that seeks to curb the exporting of electronic waste from the United States, argued that EarthECycle — and companies like it — falsely represent themselves as recyclers.

“The public all along is led to thinking they are doing a good deed, and that their old equipment is getting recycled,” the BAN report stated. “The reality,” the report continued, “is that this is a scam.”

Whether or not that’s true is an open question. BAN activists did quietly monitor two recent EarthECycle collection events in Western Pennsylvania, sponsored by two local humane societies. The group reported having observed computer equipment being hauled first to two warehouses and, some days later, having been loaded into seven oceangoing containers.

Those were later determined to be headed for ports in China and South Africa.

But the details — and the legality of it all — get tangled after that. Mr. Nixon emphatically denies doing anything wrong, insisting that he carefully scrutinizes buyers to make sure they are licensed and reputable. He also argues that groups like BAN are trying to corner the recycling market for their own network of accredited vendors.

Activists at BAN say that last charge is ludicrous and argue that Mr. Nixon’s company falsely portrays itself as a recycler, when in reality it simply passes the unexamined material downstream to the highest bidder.

Proper processing of discarded electronic equipment, they add — which can contain any number of toxic materials — could not be achieved within a business model that not only hauls away discarded electronics free but also pays organizations for the privilege.

BAN also suggests that Mr. Nixon’s shipments might have run afoul of local and international guidelines binding the recipient nations, as well as rules, adopted two years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governing the international movement of cathode-ray tubes — found in many old monitors and television sets. China, the group noted, turned back Mr. Nixon’s shipments when notified that they were on their way.

For his part, Mr. Nixon says that he is squared away with the E.P.A. and that he recalled the China shipments himself upon learning independently that his buyer might not be as reputable as he had thought. He also said he wished BAN had approached him to discuss its concerns before issuing its report.

“If somebody is outright grossly negligent, then you pull their pants down, bend them over and give them a spanking,” Mr. Nixon said. “But you don’t bring them out to the firing line for what might be only a potential offense.”

Whatever its specifics, the case is emblematic of a larger and oft-lamented truth attending the endless tide of consumer electronics coursing through the American waste stream — and one that works in favor, at least for the moment, of American brokers like Mr. Nixon: There really are precious few rules to break.

As noted in a report from the Government Accountability Office for the House Foreign Affairs Committee last August, the United States remains notoriously lax in its regulation of electronics waste and the business of shipping it overseas. “U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics,” the report concluded.

Indeed, in what has become a well-documented problem, the stuff often ends up in developing countries where labor is cheap, and eager, underground economies subsist on harvesting whatever might be of value from the snarl of plastic, glass and metal.

Over the past several years, numerous documentary films and news reports have described the toxic ecosystems that develop as a result, where acrid plumes of smoke rise from circuit-board smelting pits, and children bustle amid a soup of dioxins and mercury leaking from mountains of smoldering electronic trash.

The Basel Convention, an international treaty drawn up in the late 1980s at the dawn of the e-waste boom and ultimately ratified by 169 nations, was designed to curb the international trade in electronics waste. A later amendment — signed by considerably fewer nations — restricted the movement of hazardous electronics waste from rich countries to poor ones.

Several countries — including those in the European Union — have incorporated the tenets of the Basel Convention and its amendment into national law. The United States, along with Haiti and Afghanistan, have thus far not ratified the Basel Convention.

“The ultimate solution would be to pass a really good federal bill that would require that all recyclers in the U.S. meet very high standards,” said Sarah Westervelt, the e-waste project coordinator at BAN, “and that the U.S. ratify the Basel Convention and its amendment.”

A federal e-waste bill, in fact, was put forward in Congress in May, but environmental advocates have lambasted an exception in the draft for equipment being shipped for “repair or refurbishment.” Such a loophole, they say, gives the green light to brokers like Mr. Nixon and creates a legal foundation for the very sort of murky, difficult-to-follow trafficking that feeds toxic slums in developing nations.

“This is now an industry-supported bill, but not one that has any support from the environmental community,” said Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an advocacy group based in San Francisco that promotes environmentally conscious design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. “It will not actually stop the kinds of exports that need to be stopped,” Ms. Kyle said. “It will simply relabel them as exports for refurbishment.”

In the absence of legislation, some electronics makers are formalizing restrictions of their own. Last month, Dell, the computer giant, won accolades from environmental advocates for formally banning the exporting of nonfunctioning equipment collected by its recycling programs.

Still, Dell’s pledge notwithstanding, the American e-waste export market remains largely open for business — and as far as Mr. Nixon is concerned, that is a good thing.

He said he supports the spirit of groups like BAN and the Basel Convention but that in their specifics, they throttle a lucrative market that brings work and useful electronics to people that might not otherwise have access.

The solution, he says, is to monitor more closely foreign companies that purchase and move the equipment downstream, to ensure that it is being handled properly. “We should maintain our moral and legal prowess,” Mr. Nixon said, “but we shouldn’t limit our ability to do world trade.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment is an active member of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Bring Out Your Dead (TVs)

New York Times
Erica Gies

SAN FRANCISCO — Moore’s law, which has held true for more than 40 years, states that the number of transistors that can fit on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The world economy has reaped the benefits of this maxim, with ever-sleeker and more powerful electronics. But the phenomenon has also created up to 50 million metric tons annually of obsolete waste, according to the United Nations.

In February, Best Buy, the largest electronics retail chain in the United States, upgraded its take-back and recycling program to make it one of the most comprehensive in the country. The chain’s 1,028 U.S. stores now accept televisions with screens of up to 32 inches, or 81.3 centimeters; products with cathode ray tubes; monitors; laptops; cellphones and other consumer electronics. Items are accepted for free or the store levies a $10 charge, against which customers receive a $10 gift card.

A pick-up program takes larger items like console TVs and appliances.

While Staples, Office Depot, and other U.S. chains take back some electronics, they do not accept televisions. “It’s not comprehensive if you’re excluding an entire category of electronics, particularly one that is so challenging to recycle,” said Barbara B. Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes responsible electronics recycling.

Manufacturer responsibility is also on the rise. A year ago, Sony was the only TV maker to take back its old sets: now five others do so — LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp. But most take delivery at their recycling partners’ locations, which are usually in industrial parts of town.

Best Buy’s program is likely to be more popular because takes back televisions at its stores, which are more convenient for most consumers. The chain currently accepts the cost of recycling these TVs, although it is negotiating with manufacturers over who should pay.

Accepting the waste is just a start. Electronic waste is often shipped to developing countries for recycling, a practice that environmentalists tried, with limited success, to outlaw in 1995 through the so-called BAN Amendment to the Basel Convention, an international treaty on hazardous waste disposal.

“We think export is not legitimate and needs to stop,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, or BAN.

On May 12, the computer manufacturer Dell announced that it would not export any nonworking equipment to developing countries. “Dell is drawing a very sharp and bright line,” said Ms. Kyle. “It just cuts through the confusing jargon and nuance. That puts them at the head of the class.”

Still, Dell does not disclose its recycling partners. The TakeBack coalition is pushing for greater openness in recycling programs because “in an arena where there’s so much cheating going on, transparency helps improve some of that,” said Ms. Kyle.

Best Buy’s export policy is not as strict as Dell’s, but it has published on its Web site both its standards and its recycling partners.

Ms. Kyle said she was pleased to see the company’s efforts toward openness but was concerned about the vagueness of some statements, which, she said, left “wiggle room.” For example, she takes issue with Best Buy’s statement: “The dumping of electronic waste on developing countries should be prohibited.”

“Is Best Buy going to prohibit that?” she asked. “That’s a very different statement than saying, ‘We will make sure that our exports from our program do not go to developing countries.”’

A Best Buy spokeswoman, Kelly Groehler, clarified the published statement. “We do not condone the illegal dumping of materials in other countries,” Ms. Groehler said. “We will cease a relationship with any vendor that practices that.”

Auditing is vital to tracking waste on its path through multiple handlers. Best Buy recently hired the Shaw Group to conduct audits on its recycling partners. But these will be internal, rather than independent, third-party audits; and Best Buy does not intend to disclose the auditing methods.

“We’re not perfect at this,” Ms. Groehler said. “we realize we have got a long ways to go.”