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Tech trash is a dirty little secret of the international community

Is recycling always a good thing?  Obviously paper, plastic and metal recycling programs have been very successful in the U.S. in replenishing petrochemicals, paper, and ores.  What about the newer practice of "tech recycling"?

This is the issue examined by a new Associated Press report which slams the American tech industry for what AP reporters see as a recycling electronics facade.  According to the report, U.S. citizens think they are doing something positive by turning in their electronics to "recyclers", but instead of being recycled, these companies simply manage a global flow of electronics trash.

The practice both contributes to hazardous waste disposal and exposure in poverty stricken nations.

The conditions that workers at international "recycling" plants deal with are quite appalling according to the report.  Workers work without protective equipment using crude hammers, gas burners, and bare hands to pry apart electronics and burn off valuable substances.  In the process they are being exposed to a wide array of toxins, which in the U.S. would only be handled with protective equipment, for fear of damaging health effects.

The report cites estimates that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up undergoing this overseas journey.  Thus your cell phone bin in your local supermarket may be causing toxic exposure to someone in China, unbeknownst to you.

"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group tech group, of tech recycling efforts. "We're preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world."

Industry officials are cited in the article as stating that much of the trash was collecting during Earth Day drives by schools, companies, and local government.  These groups typically go for the cheapest recycler to dispose of their collections and do not question, what exactly these firms do with the waste.

These recyclers often sell the few working units and send the rest overseas.

The problem is likely to skyrocket soon, as many states are banning the disposal of electronics waste in landfills.  California recently became the first state to mandate cell phone recycling.  These bans and mandates will drive much of the 2 million tons of electronics waste discarded yearly by Americans into the poorly regulated recycling industry.  The end result -- more exports.

China bans the import of used electronics and is waging a constant war against importers.

In September, customs officials were tipped off to two freight containers in Hong Kong, which were discovered to contain used televisions and old computer screens.  The shipper: none other than Fortune Sky USA of Cordova, Tennessee.

Fortune Sky's General Manager Vincent Yu claimed that he thought they were shipping used computers and is trying to get his money back.  He claims that his company simply promotes reuse of old electronics that we don't have a need for anymore.

Anti-tech-trash activists are not convinced of these kinds of claims. "Reuse is the new excuse. It's the new passport to export," said Puckett of Basel Action Network. "Other countries are facing this glut of exported used equipment under the pretext that it's all going to be reused."

In China much of the trash gets past customs officials, due to limited resources.  They also struggle with false declarations, of exporters who state that their waste is actual goods.

In the first nine months of the year, China returned 20 U.S. containers full of tech trash.  They also returned 65 tech trash containers from other nations, showing that the U.S. isn't the only high tech country with a trash problem.

The U.S. has no laws against the export of tech waste.  Cathode ray tube exports are illegal without an express agreement from the importing nation, but typically these slip through the cracks of America's porous shipping industry as well.  

Matt Hale head of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of solid waste does not see exporting our tech trash as a problem.  Rather he says the issue is raising standards in the country we ship it to. "What we need to do is work internationally to upgrade the standards (for recycling) wherever it takes place."

Thus far the government has a certification process for responsible recycling, but a standard on what is required to meet this certification is still up in the air.

Many companies such as HP, Dell, and Apple, recycle their electronics.  Apple recently was blasted by Greenpeace for having toxic substances reportedly in their iPhone.  While it is unlikely that these would cause harm to users, barring gross negligence, they could affect people melting the phones for their plastics and metals in an impoverished nation.

The much ado over tech trash has painted an interesting modern example of how the world of affluent nations and impoverished nations is colliding, with tech issues as a frequent hot topic.



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Dirty Little Secret?
By Cobra Commander on 11/21/2007 10:02:08 AM , Rating: 3
Can't say this is new information. Perhaps I just happened to read some obscure articles on this in the past but I think you'd find that anyone who's up-to-date on such topics would be aware. BUT it's obviously a good thing to broadcast for those who are currently unaware of such things - not trying to complain... Sub-Headline was just had some "Drama" in it.

IMO, the larger issue to raise here is "What is the true impact of recycling?" generally-speaking in America. This is just one of the many sad realities of recycling - at least in America.




RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 11/21/2007 11:05:46 AM , Rating: 5
There is a town in India on the coast, the name escapes me.

All ships in the world, especially tankers, must be disposed of a certain manner. Instead, most companies just illegal run their ship aground in this town in India. The citizens then salvage the ship, though usually at a high health cost.

These dirty secrets of western trash have been going on for a while.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By daftrok on 11/21/2007 11:17:31 AM , Rating: 3
Both the people need to be educated on how big the health risk is salvaging the ships and companies need to be prosecuted for illegally throwing their ships away as unceremoniously as you said.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By James Holden on 11/21/2007 11:58:14 AM , Rating: 2
Well, I'm not sure if you realize the level of poverty in this community. The people know they'll die after a few years of working on the ships, but they also know they'll die next week if they can't get food.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By 16nm on 11/21/07, Rating: -1
RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 11/21/2007 2:19:01 PM , Rating: 2
I was under the impression that deep water fish are not affected. Tuna and the like


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By mal1 on 11/21/2007 3:21:30 PM , Rating: 2
I'm pretty sure that any fish higher up on the food chain have higher levels of mercury (and who knows what else). They taste too good to stop eating though.

http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice....


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By StevoLincolnite on 11/22/2007 11:27:34 PM , Rating: 3
It depends where the fish is actually caught, I live in Port Lincoln South Australia, Which is also Australia's largest Tuna Fishing hub, we have Greenseas Tuna, Tony's Tuna, Tuna Pro's and various other companies, Pollution has never been an issue, nor has mercury in the fish, the only issue we have ever had is if we have rather large swirls which brings up the pilchards from the bottom of the seabed which kills the tuna.

(Pilchards is a fish we use to feed the tuna).

Regular tests are done on the tuna, to test the health of the fish. - Theres also Tuna Quota's to prevent over fishing. - On average there is about 15 to 20 thousand Tons of tuna caught here. - And the usually get about 150 to 220 thousand dollars per ton of tuna. (Thats why Port Lincoln has the most Millionaires in a small population than anywhere else in Australia).

We also hold a "Tunarama" every January to celebrate the industry. (The name makes me laugh as well).

"http://www.tunarama.net/about.htm" - One of the girls "Jenna Blaney" is a good friend of mine :) Thats how small the town is.

And since the free trade agreement between Australia and the United states, the industry has grown. - Still health wise Tuna are a very clean fish.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By System48 on 11/21/2007 1:07:09 PM , Rating: 5
The town you're thinking of is Alang, India. For those that haven't seen it, check it out on Google Earth:

21° 25' 07.96" N, 72° 12' 22.01" E


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By jarman on 11/21/2007 1:50:49 PM , Rating: 2
Wow... The satellite images from Google Maps captures the shear quantity of ships beached at Alang. That is a big problem...


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By rcc on 11/21/2007 2:16:21 PM , Rating: 2
Gotta love the old British or Russian aircraft carrier sitting there. Presumably it's one of the ones sold to India, so them must be "supporting" this town's livelihood.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By Stele on 11/21/2007 9:57:10 PM , Rating: 2
British would be about right - though it wasn't sold to India. That carrier would likely be the Minas Gerais - a Brazilian aircraft carrier which they bought from the Royal Navy in the 1950s. Scrapped and towed to Alang in 2004 to be broken up.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 11/21/2007 2:24:25 PM , Rating: 3
Truely incredible site from the air. It's a little sad though to see the damage to the environment and the immense poverty (shanty towns) near the ships.

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&tim...


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By BladeVenom on 11/21/2007 4:01:41 PM , Rating: 2
I found an aircraft carrier. http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&tim...
Still looking for Waldo.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By anandtechuser07 on 11/21/2007 7:31:28 PM , Rating: 1
There is an article on Greenpeace's site about how the French recalled one of their aircraft carriers from going to Alang for scrapping, due to health and environmental concerns:

http://www.greenpeaceweb.org/shipbreak/news119.asp

"The Clemenceau was one of the largest ships to be sent for scrap but every year a vast decrepit armada bearing a dangerous cargo of toxic substances including asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and heavy metals, ends up in Asian ship breaking yards (Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan) where they are cut up using the crudest of methods - taking a huge toll on human health and the local environment."


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By RjBass on 11/22/2007 12:05:45 AM , Rating: 2
Things in Alang are improving. See this article.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/470016...


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By tmouse on 11/21/2007 11:24:26 AM , Rating: 4
I think this should also be put in a little perspective. First the US DOES NOT force anyone to take this trash, we have never given the ultimatum take our trash or no aid; that is pure BS. The government has nothing to do with this peroid. Private companies (most by the way, are owned and headed by ex nationals of the recieving countries with "connections")contract to ship and recycle. They are paid for recieving and paid by selling the recycled end materials. Unfortunatly they take advantage of their own people with themselves and the middlemen getting the lions share and the people doing the work getting more than the average worker in that area but also having severe exposure. The real responsibility lies with the government of the recieving countries, they have NO laws protecting their own people because such measures would result in less money for them (they are often the middlemen). Human life is considered cheap by their own governments so while I do not deny we do have some responsibility we do not deserve most of the flack. BTW I know for a fact that several of the major european recyclers also sub-contract to asia and the former eastern block countries for their projects so this is NOT just and American problem.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By chick0n on 11/21/07, Rating: 0
RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By rcc on 11/21/2007 2:34:43 PM , Rating: 3
Because we object to people poisoning our children?

We (unreasonably, evidently) assume compliance with specifications and safeguards.

OTOH, if you buy trash, you sorta get what you pay for.

Now, if someone is paying for new product and getting a container of trash, that's another problem.

I agree that a better way of disposing of this refuse would be good. However, by limiting availablity, or requiring specific procedures from the receiving nation, are we not just pushing our values on to other countries? Something that people piss and moan at us about constantly?


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By TSS on 11/21/2007 3:17:04 PM , Rating: 2
"Because we object to people poisoning our children?"

i'm sure the people in china working on recycling your hardware will say the exact same thing.

"I agree that a better way of disposing of this refuse would be good. However, by limiting availablity, or requiring specific procedures from the receiving nation, are we not just pushing our values on to other countries? Something that people piss and moan at us about constantly?"

personally, this is not something i moan about (though i'd like to). what i'd moan on about is that it's selective. "pushing your values onto other people" here means spending more money, getting less but end up with fewer dead, well i'll just say it, foreigners. while if it where in your favor, you'd do it without asking questions.

not that any other country is any better, yet the americans tend to be more blatant about it. it's exact the same reason why irak got invaded, yet everybody couldn't care less about sudan while the atrocities are wayy worse there. nothing to gain.

they ship you dangerous toys but topgrade sillicon, you ship them safe toys but dangerous sillicon. keepin' the world in balance.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By rcc on 11/21/2007 7:19:19 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
i'm sure the people in china working on recycling your hardware will say the exact same thing.


The difference being it's their people doing it. They said yes, send it, now you, go recycle it. They did not specify trash without waste products. OTOH, slipping something into the US that doesn't meet spec....... Well, shame on us for not catching it on entry, shame on them, period.

quote:
personally, this is not something i moan about (though i'd like to). what i'd moan on about is that it's selective. "pushing your values onto other people" here means spending more money, getting less but end up with fewer dead, well i'll just say it, foreigners. while if it where in your favor, you'd do it without asking questions.


That's unclear enough I'm not quite sure what to respond to. However, on a personal basis, I do my best not to push my values on anyone, unless they are in my house (or country); at which point they can abide by the rules or depart.

Now, if we really wanted to push our values, we'd obviously refuse any imports from China until they started meeting our labor codes and pay scales.

quote:
they ship you dangerous toys but topgrade sillicon, you ship them safe toys but dangerous sillicon. keepin' the world in balance.


Nice, but here's a newsflash. We are pretty much shipping the same thing back to them that they sent to us, in terms of silicon; just slightly used and with a bit of smoke let out.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By jconan on 11/22/2007 2:26:43 AM , Rating: 2
1 solution to control this matter is make companies accountable for the stuff that they sell and that there is way to dismantle their stuff safely after the product's lifecycle has ended. However the problem lies in enforcing it and making companies globally responsible and lobbying efforts transparent with corrupt legislators or officials.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By opterondo on 11/22/2007 7:35:01 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
by chick0n on November 21, 2007 at 1:07 PM Yep, then tell me why did the americans whine like a little bitch with all the toys from China? China did NOT ASK YOU Americans to buy them. What sup with that huh ? Americans just love to blame others for their own freaking mess.


Yes you are the text book example of a dumb twat.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By andrewsdw on 11/21/2007 1:49:34 PM , Rating: 2
Thank you...some one beat me to it. +1 to you sir.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By just4U on 11/21/2007 3:48:23 PM , Rating: 2
It's all under the assumption that these countries recieving used electronics are going to either refurbish them or salvage what's usable in a responsible fashion.

Work standards in the west are alot higher then in underdeveloped countries and the pay is lower. We lose alot to outsourcing for a reason. The companies employing these workers are not taking proper precautions to ensure their safety.

Not sure exactly who you can point the finger at but I suspect we are all to blame not just "Americans". And yes, that includes the people from these countries that are being effected... since they wouldnt be accepting any of this stuff if there wasn't some profit in it for them.

Basically I think we just need stiff global regulations which all countries need to adhere to... and not turn a blind eye because were getting a deal that's likely to good to be true.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By Ringold on 11/21/2007 6:34:49 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Basically I think we just need stiff global regulations which all countries need to adhere to


If you can find a way in which developing world laborers can be subjected to the same sort of regulations as in America (which cost small businesses over $7000 per year per employee in compliance opportunity costs according to the SBA) and still manage oustanding growth, please, go right ahead. You'll have a nobel prize in no time.

The current phase developing, or I should say "transitional economies" are presently in resemble the one we once had for a reason. It's part of moving up from agriculture, to low value added industry, to higher value added industry, and ultimately on up to the information age with tech, fabs, biotech, etc; climbing the value chain. It's raising hundreds of millions of people from abject agrarian poverty to a relatively prosperous middle class.

With history as our guide, we can safely assume that we can respect China's sovereign right to deal with this internally rather than brow beat them in to submission while still ultimately getting what we want. Everywhere I'm aware of has, once the people have a little extra money beyond basic needs and wants, starts to be concerned with things like air quality, etc. That's when they can afford to be concerned.

By the way, I find it an interesting paradox of liberal foreign policy that while they can trash Bush for not respecting allies and foreign countries sovereign rights, they can turn around and try their damndest to manipulate trade treaties and whatnot to subvert local governments in order to enforce Western morals and ethics on other countries populations, whether they like it or not. They try to have it both ways; apparently, dictatorship, even genocide, if okay. But damnit, capitalism hurting a few employees and the bongs hit the fan and the anti-globalization protestors hit the streets.


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By Oregonian2 on 11/21/2007 8:58:55 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
By the way, I find it an interesting paradox of liberal foreign policy that while they can trash Bush for not respecting allies and foreign countries sovereign rights, they can turn around and try their damndest to manipulate trade treaties and whatnot to subvert local governments in order to enforce Western morals and ethics on other countries populations, whether they like it or not.


Yes, we've a good friend (Canadian) who damns the U.S when the U.S. does something internationally because we're sticking our nose into another country's business where we don't belong. Very same person damns the U.S. when something bad happens outside of the U.S. because we, the world's superpower, should have done something to have prevented it. Duh.

P.S. - We could just go back to burying stuff. But at very least, as the world (including the U.S.) goes RoHS (and it is like gangbusters), at least electronic stuff should have less toxic stuff in it. And RoHS II is coming up.... I do give the the EU a lot of credit in this regard .


RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By just4U on 11/23/2007 1:32:54 PM , Rating: 2
The thing is alot of these companies ... regardless of what field they operate in are interconnected right? I mean you can have one set in the western world under stiff operational procedures and then have another branch of the same damn company operating with literally none in more impoverished nations.

Yes, your right that as they advance workers will turn their attention more and more towards better safety, better pay, fairness, (or what ever)because of a more solvant lifestyle. BUT, if I had to hazzard a guess I'd say the owners of many of these companies already operate in the western world under much better practices.. so why should they throw all that to the wind because their in a less well to do country? Does not seem right.


"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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