The Dirty Truth About (Some) E-Waste Collections

The Dirty Truth About (Some) E-Waste Collections

A new report just published by the Basel Action Network and the Electronics Takeback Coalition is highlighting the many issues and pitfalls around how the United States deals with electronic waste.

The report concerns an Oklahoma-based e-waste recycler, a series of free public e-waste collection drives in western Pennsylvania, and the sticky morass that is U.S. e-waste export rules.

A little background: BAN and Electronics Takeback have long been advocating for responsible e-waste policies in the U.S. Because this country is the only developed nation that hasn't yet ratified the Basel Convention on toxic wastes, the U.S. is able to import and export all types of hazardous materials, with the sole exception being for cathode-ray tube televisions and monitors, provided that proper notice is given to the EPA.

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Electronic waste is a huge problem, containing both a large number of highly toxic materials and hard-to-recycle compounds; but there are valuable materials in electronics that can be harvested and potentially reused or sold on the commodities market. An expose by the television news program 60 Minutes last year explored how toxic e-waste harvesting can be. Given the choice between landfilling millions of pounds of electronics containing lead, mercury and other toxins, and collecting it for supposedly eco-friendly recycling, it's not a difficult decision to make.

But the report from BAN looks at how e-waste collection projects, no matter how green they're promised to be, can end up being part of the problem.

As part of their preparation for Earth Day, BAN looked around the country for free e-waste collection drives. Free collection drives fall into a simple rule of thumb, according to Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics Takeback Coalition: follow the money.

"If you have someone who is going to take all your stuff, including TVs, for free, then stop right there: they're going to be exporting," Kyle explained.

What BAN found was less common, and raised more red flags, than just a free drive: an Oklahoma-based e-waste company called Earth ECycle was holding a collection drive in western Pennsylvania as a benefit for the Humane Society in the region.

"If you've got a recycler who's taking this for free, and paying a charity for it, then there's only one way to generate revenue from taking stuff from people's basement and garages," Sarah Westervelt, BAN's e-Stewardship Director, told me, "that's to export it."

Lee Nesler, the executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, told me that the events in the region netted over a million pounds of discarded electronics, and will earn the group about $150,000 in donations from Earth ECycle.

BAN staked out the collection drive, and followed the trucks that left the collections warehouses in Pittsburgh and Monroeville, Pa. From those warehouses, following some "offloading and reloading" of the trucks, per the BAN report, the containers went overseas. Most were shipped to Hong Kong with destinations beyond to Vietnam or elsewhere, and a final container was shipped to South Africa.

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The problem, in addition to concerns about exports of e-waste in violation of U.S. and international law, is that Earth ECycle pledges to keep all e-waste in the U.S. for processing. When BAN contacted Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department warning about incoming shipments of potentially illegal waste, the authorities there refused the containers and shipped them back to the U.S.

In an email interview, Earth ECycle's CEO, Jeffrey Nixon, explained that his company recalled the shipments, and what comes next for the containers. "When all of the containers come back, we will verify contents and seal to insure we are the ones responsible, take them back to a warehouse in NJ, sort, separate and resell the items to a well qualified buyer," Nixon wrote.

There are more wrinkles in this story than can reasonably be explained in a blog, but it's worth noting that neither of the warehouses that Earth ECycle sent the collected materials to contain recycling or dismantling equipment, that the materials did obviously end up being shipped overseas, contrary to the company's claims, and that Earth ECycle has an account on Exporters.sg, an import-export website, where the company offers for sale container-loads of electronic scrap.

Nixon disputes the claims of the BAN report, and says that he will take responsibility to correct mistakes like the shipping of these electronics overseas. But regardless of the specifics of this case, it highlights a serious problem with U.S. e-waste policy.

According to Barbara Kyle, this kind of export is pretty standard in the industry. "When it comes to these public collection events where people can take their stuff in for free, and which are not paid for by state programs, this is a pretty common thing," she said. "Everyone thinks they're doing the right thing [by bringing their electronics in for recycling], but people have no idea that these are going on a container and going overseas."

And once these electronics have been collected, it's difficult to keep them from being imported, even among the 140 countries that are signatories to the Basel Convention. The report says that Hong Kong authorities can only inspect a few containers per day for contraband, and that about 50 containers per day of e-waste get past the inspections, destined for mainland China.

"There's no global police force enforcing the Basel Convention," Sarah Westervelt explained. "...These containers make it through their customs process, usually in violation of their laws, and they get opened up and 'recycled' using very toxic technologies. The end result is you've got these immortal heavy metals dispersed into their environment, impacting human health and the environment for the long term."

Groups like BAN and the Electronics Takeback Coalition have been working on both the policy and the action front. While federal e-waste legislation was introduced last week by Rep. Gene Green, Kyle and Westervelt both said that the proposed rule has been corrupted by loopholes that would allow the exporting of this type of waste.

But BAN has also been working on a market solution to the e-waste disposal problem in the U.S. Late last year, they launched E-Stewards, a certification that recognizes the most responsible e-waste handling practices around. After six years of developing the standard and the list of companies that meet E-Stewards criteria, BAN has nearly completed the process to make E-Stewards an independently audited certification. A pilot verification of the label will begin at the end of 2009, and the certification is expected to launch in February 2010.

In the meantime, individuals, businesses and non-profits like the Humane Society bear the bulk of the burden in sorting through the complexities of responsible e-waste disposal.

You can download the full report from http://BAN.org [PDF], and be sure to check out all of GreenerComputing.com's e-waste news and resources.

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