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  (Source: Natalie Behring/Greenpeace)
The U.S. government aims to stamp out trash exporting, while environmental lobbies put pressure on big business

The “tech trash” subject is a controversial one in the U.S. and abroad.  For the last decade, the U.S. has been shipping growing amounts of electronics trash to foreign countries, particularly third world and developing nations.  China is among the prime targets, and despite laws put in place against the practice, the trash continues to pour in.

The U.S. government, particularly Congress, has grown increasingly upset about the image the U.S. is projecting by shipping its tech trash overseas.  Now they are looking to act with new e-waste legislation on the table.  U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, last week introduced legislation which would ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations.  Analysts predict the legislation might have enough support to pass by next year.

Part of the reason for the rise in concern, analysts say is the eyesore of a problem is getting harder to ignore.  With Americans owning roughly 3 billion gadgets, including desktops, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs, there is a tremendous amount of tech trash generated each year.  In 1998, 20 million computers were estimated to be disposed of annually.  In 2005, despite increased recycling rates the estimate was up to 37 million.

While the overall waste only accounts for a small percentage of the total trash, it is growing.  And with 2.25 million tons in the last two years and only 18 percent being recycled, the problem is becoming more and more noticeable.

According to advocates, when this waste is shipped overseas and broken down by impoverished locals, mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants are frequently reduced.  Locals often work with no gloves and face heavy exposure to these chemicals that have been shown to have a wide array of health effects.

Another emerging crisis is the switch to digital TV.  With the signals fully switching in February 2009, it is predicted that 32 million digital televisions will bought, meaning millions of old models will likely be trashed.  These old models will likely cause a massive surge in tech trash for the year.  Older CRT (cathode ray tube) models frequently have as much as four pounds of lead a piece. 

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition warns people that "recycling" efforts may not be all they're cracked up to be.  Many recycling initiatives collect massive amounts of tech waste and then ship it overseas and then pocket the small profit.

Ms. Kyle insists that only if companies themselves adopt national take back programs will the practice be suitable for regulation and the misbehavior able to be stopped.  Of all the manufacturers of TVs, until recently, only Sony was progressive enough to adopt such policies, she said.  Sony offers a free take back program at its affiliated retailers.  In a Congressional report Sony stated that it was perhaps the only tech company to ban "the exportation of hazardous waste to developing countries."

Now LG Electronics has decided to side with Sony and is launching its own free recycling initiative.  By September, LG promises to have one recycling center per state.  Some states and government entities such as the surprisingly green state of Texas have recycling programs of their own that are manufacturer neutral.  These programs have been a major factor in upping recycling rates from 15 percent in 1999 to 18 percent in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

International environmental group Greenpeace, known for some of its more controversial stances, has decided to tackle this slightly less radical issue.  It released a major report on the flow of tech trash to the West African country of Ghana, one of the major destinations after China and India.  The report details the toxic exposure citizens of the country face in their search for aluminum and copper to resell.  It also points out possible environmental damage due to improper disposal.

Greenpeace is trying to convince the world's two largest electronics manufacturers -- Philips and Sharp -- to phase out toxic materials in their electronics and to fully adopt recycling programs.

Still, private and advocate efforts are not enough, according to many members of Congress.  They feel even the EPA, the government agency tasked with dealing with such issues, has disappointed with its inaction.  Rep. Green states, "If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action."  

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RE: Trash/treasure
By JasonMick on 8/6/2008 2:27:23 PM , Rating: 3
Anyone who pretends that dismantling a cell phone in India is going to "disrupt the enviroment" especially here in the US should be locked away in a padded cell.

I think the chief concern is the sheer amount of lead and other toxins found in bigger electronics like TVs. Sure a cell phone might contain just micrograms of mercury, but a TV can contain pounds of lead. This may indeed "disrupt the environment" if it reaches local water supplies.

Far worse would be the effects on the local populous, though.

Your comment:


People seem to forget that the small amounts of mercury and lead found in electronics originally came out of the ground in the first place.

is misleading. Yes, lead and mercury come from the ground. Arsenic and cyanide are also in the soil, but try ingesting arsenic and using your argument that its not dangerous in sufficient quantities. If that is not what you're trying to say, that's what it sounds like you're saying and its misleading.

Any medical doctor would tell you that continual skin exposure to lead, mercury, and halogens or inhaling them in fumes can have severe health effects. Further, if these compounds find their way into drinking water supplies, the effects could be even worst and could last generations.

These people are poorly protected and the trash is not being properly disposed of.

This is a human issue, not so much an environmental one.

Perhaps you are correct that it is not as severe in all cases (ie. someone melting down a cell phone) as advocacy groups would have you believe. But its also far more severe than you would like to have people believe with your slippery arguments like "lead is found in the ground!".

RE: Trash/treasure
By masher2 on 8/6/08, Rating: -1
RE: Trash/treasure
By JasonMick on 8/6/2008 3:19:01 PM , Rating: 5
The "lead belt" in Southern Missouri has lead deposits containing several hundred million tons of lead, many of which reach to the surface and have surface water or groundwater flowing regularly over them. The environment doesn't seem to be "dirupted" there; in fact, its one of the more ecologically rich areas in the US.

Michael, do you know how ridiculous that comment is from a chemistry standpoint? Lead deposits in the Missouri/Mississippi are fixed in Galena in lead-zinc-fluorite compounds that are minimally soluble. Lead found in solder is slightly more soluble. But more importantly, a frequent practice is hammering and chipping at these boards. Lead dust is the BEST way to get lead poisoning and to spread lead in a water supply.

Lead dust is not going form from a galena rock sitting is some ore deposit sans human intervention, but it will form when you're pounding on a board with 4 pounds of solder. And thats a perfect way to disperse enough lead in time to give a whole community mild to severe lead poisoning.

But is misuse like that such a severe problem as to warrant an international ban on all shipments of electronic waste to foreign countries? It's lunacy to even propose such draconian measures.

If recycling is so profitable, why not recycle it here and keep the profit in the States?

If its not because of toxins, doesn't this warrant proper disposal from a humanitarian/medical standpoint??

We ingest arsenic each and every day

You do not ingest large quantities of lead, arsenic, cyanide, etc. daily.


I agree utterly. And what's better for a human in a nation like Ghana or India-- an easy, well-paying job that allows them to purchase nutritious food, reasonable shelter, and basic medical care, at a very small risk to their long-term health...or to have them starving on the streets, begging for food?

Umm as you pointed out not to long ago, the people in these regions are largely being exploited by local warlords. This money isn't going to them but to the local warchief. This will have little impact on their standard of living, except for exposing them to toxins daily.

RE: Trash/treasure
By arazok on 8/6/2008 3:51:34 PM , Rating: 1
If recycling is so profitable, why not recycle it here and keep the profit in the States?

Because protectionist nonsense like that ultimately lowers our standard of living. Making dishwashers, shoes, and toys is also profitable, but we do most of it overseas because those countries can do it at a lower cost.

Umm as you pointed out not to long ago, the people in these regions are largely being exploited by local warlords. This money isn't going to them but to the local warchief. This will have little impact on their standard of living, except for exposing them to toxins daily.

Nonsense. Those exploited workers earn wages far in excess of what they would ever earn tilling in a farmers field, even if it’s peanuts by our standards. What you call exploitation I call the seeds of a future middle class.

except for exposing them to toxins daily.

Ask a person with no access to health care and a life expectancy of 35 if he is worried that exposure to these toxins might cause him to get cancer when he turns 50 and he’ll tell you you’re a moron.

RE: Trash/treasure
By masher2 on 8/6/08, Rating: -1
RE: Trash/treasure
By Sandok on 8/9/2008 5:23:55 AM , Rating: 2
I get the feeling you don't care much about the environment at all, and that's your choice but personally, I enjoy taking care of where I live (in this case, planet Earth).

Do you personally think that dumping lead, mercury and other toxic material into the soil good? Try to think long-term, beyond your life; do you think it's smart and prosperous for anyone?

Nothing's wrong about being mindful of your surroundings you know...

RE: Trash/treasure
By Spuke on 8/6/2008 3:21:59 PM , Rating: 1
or to have them starving on the streets, begging for food?
If they're begging on the streets because of this it's still our fault because we "teased" them by providing an unhealthy income in the first place.

<Standing on soapbox looking down at the poor masses>We need to teach them how to survive using ecologically friendly methods. And discourage them from the wasteful lifestyle of the West (aka Great Satan).

/dripping sarcasm

“We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” -- Steve Jobs

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