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

September 18, 2008

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.”


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