E-Waste Investigation Nabs 'Green' Recycler ERI

The challenges of dealing with e-waste -- or at least from the United States' method for dealing with e-waste -- continue to grow, as a new and seemingly little-noticed exposé from The Sacramento Bee finds.

A report published this past weekend by Tom Knudson follows on two similar investigations we covered in advance of Black Friday last week -- namely, that recycling and exporting e-waste is a complicated process, and that companies and individuals that truly want to recycle used electronics in responsible ways are fighting an uphill battle.

But more importantly, Knudson's reporting highlights how even companies that are presenting a green image -- and arguably are working on truly greening their practices -- can still also be exporting e-waste overseas, where it's dismantled and processed in unimaginably dangerous and harmful ways.

Knudson writes:

In California, few recyclers tout their green credentials more prominently than John Shegerian, chairman of Electronics Recyclers International in Fresno, who has invested millions in environmental improvements over the past five years.
Shegerian told The Bee that e-waste exports are deplorable. "It's the last thing we want to be known for," he said. "It's just horrible on every level."
Yet documents show that as recently as 2008 even ERI was quietly selling large volumes of e-waste to a Los Angeles exporter who shipped it to Hong Kong. While legal, the sale violated a pledge the company signed with the nation's leading e-waste watchdog group, the Basel Action Network.

That's about as damning as it comes. But there is of course more. Knudson dug up documents that show ERI exported 6.9 million pounds of e-waste, much of it broken and not reusable, and thus destined for the "artisanal recycling" efforts that involve cooking electronics on grills and dipping them in open pits of acid to release valuable metals inside.

Knudson nails ERI CEO John Shegerian at every turn, quoting Shegerian as saying:

"Here's a dirty little secret," Shegerian said, walking through his facility. "About 10 percent of the people in the industry who say they are recycling are really recycling. About 90 percent are still packing and shipping.
"How people do it is they go, 'Oh we're selling it abroad for reuse.' Wink. Wink. The resale of these things is such hooey, is such a fraudulent excuse," Shegerian said.

And following that quote with:

[ERI's own shipping documents] show that ERI sold 6.9 million pounds of e-waste to a Los Angeles exporter in 2007 and 2008, much of it labeled consumer scrap and reusable electronics. The e-waste filled 189 sea containers, averaging more than 36,000 pounds each.
Asked about those transactions, Shegerian blamed former business partners for leaking the information in an attempt to discredit him, and said the shipments were environmentally responsible. "Everything was either working units or commodities that go to smelters," he said in August.
But Gordon Chiu, the broker who purchased the e-waste, said the containers were filled with a mishmash of items that were not dismantled into commodities and were largely nonworking.
Speaking by Skype from Egypt, Chiu said he looked inside some of the containers in Fresno and saw "printers, keyboards and junk stuff like that."
Chiu even wrote a letter to ERI in 2008 offering higher prices if the company would provide "electronic goods with over 30 percent working."

Holding ERI out as an example is important, because the company is not just trying to green its operations, it's pledged to uphold the Basel Action Network's code of conduct as part of the new e-Stewards responsible recycling certification.