E-Waste Investigation Nabs 'Green' Recycler ERI

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.

If a company can export millions of pounds of toxic waste and still be part of what is still likely the best overall certification for environmentally responsible electronics recycling, how can anyone be sure their electronics aren't going overseas or to prison yards?

In part, the answer will be that it's going to take time. E-Stewards just launched earlier this year, and is slowly building a third-party audited network of certified recyclers that don't export any broken electronics. And electronics manufacturers are also driving this change.

Hewlett-Packard and Dell are two notable examples. GreenBiz.com's senior writer Marc Gunther profiled HP in October, and on e-waste he describe the company's elaborate efforts to separate out the various materials so that "Things come in as e-waste" and "They go out as commodities," in the words of HP's chief sustainability officer Engelina Jaspers.

And back in 2009, Dell announce a landmark new policy for e-waste: "If it's broken, don't export it."

But as Knudson points out, this story is not just about one possibly bad apple, or even about how difficult it is for recyclers to responsibly deal with broken electronics. The larger point is that, until the U.S. replaces its current patchwork of e-waste laws -- which cover only a tiny percentage of electronics, and the only federal law focusing on televisions only -- with a strong federal law, there may not be any way to be sure that the electronics you'd like to see responsibly recycled don't end up poisoning the planet, anywhere on the planet.

Photo CC-licensed by purplemattfish.