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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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RE: Oh please
By Cobra Commander on 11/21/2007 10:06:02 AM , Rating: 2
I don't see what the correlation between financial aid in totally unrelated matters and Tech Trash is. If America provides (for argument's sake) Human Rights financial support to some groups in China, those same groups are now supposed to manage the monitor I threw out last week?

Now, what you quoted is embellishing reality a bit much IMO but I still don't follow your reasoning otherwise.

RE: Oh please
By mdogs444 on 11/21/07, Rating: 0
RE: Oh please
By Cobra Commander on 11/21/2007 10:19:58 AM , Rating: 2
I think if you pay attention to to what's going on there are MANY Americans (and MANY others as well, of course) who are frustrated with this flawed recycling system. If you want to believe only those who are receiving financial aid are complaining then you're just believing something you want to believe and not looking at the bigger picture. Think about it, I'm American, I receive no financial aid and I think it's a broken system that needs fixing - how does that make you feel?

RE: Oh please
By subhajit on 11/21/2007 10:33:23 AM , Rating: 2
There is a reason why US gives other countries money, that is how they control the world. They get the countries to fall in line with them for the help they are providing.

RE: Oh please
By Bioniccrackmonk on 11/21/2007 10:39:26 AM , Rating: 2
Once they fall in line, we setup a military base to keep a strong presence there. We are the only country in the world to have numerous bases in various other countries. Why?

RE: Oh please
By Nightskyre on 11/21/2007 10:48:37 AM , Rating: 2
Because the Great British Empire collapsed long ago.

RE: Oh please
By Samus on 11/21/2007 10:54:50 AM , Rating: 2
You're acting like ignorant children. Many industrialized nations have embassy's in other countries. Sure, America is no exception, but I'd be willing to bet the UN has more embassy properties in Africa alone than the United States has in the entire world.

RE: Oh please
By Spuke on 11/21/2007 11:34:02 AM , Rating: 2
You're acting like ignorant children.
That's because they ARE ignorant children. Someone fed them a piece of info that shattered their reality and now they are angry at the world, so to speak. I understand, I've been there. But in my travels and growth I've come to the understanding that no one is innocent in these matters. Do a little research and you'll come to the same conclusion. We're all human and we mistakes on a grand scale from time to time. NO ONE is different.

RE: Oh please
By drank12quartsstrohsbeer on 11/21/2007 11:34:27 AM , Rating: 2
Remember people:

China has a HUGE trade surplus with the United States right now. They are sitting on hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars.

The Chinese government has the means to deal with this. They have chosen not to. This sort of thing is just another population control strategy.

RE: Oh please
By rudy on 11/21/2007 12:54:18 PM , Rating: 2
I agree its their job to take care of their people, they make billions off of the US in the form of jobs and exports to the US. In fact they make the crap and we are just sending it back to them. They make a trade by neclecting their peoples human rights and their own environement they can out compete US work forces money wise. In return their people will pay the price, maybe one day they will wake up and demand change. Until then it is their problem. If they do not spend some of the billions they are making dealing with these problems I do not feel sorry for them. However it does make me a little mad that I know most of what I wasted time recycling is probably just getting trashed.

RE: Oh please
By Aarnando on 11/21/2007 11:35:42 AM , Rating: 2
Our government giving a foreign country aid doesn't justify US businesses sending shipments of garbage to foreign countries. I think the US in general should keep its money and its trash to itself.

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki
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