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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 Brandon Hill (blog) on 11/21/2007 10:08:01 AM , Rating: 2
I don't see how you're connecting tech trash to government aide.

That like saying that I'll donate some food to a homeless shelter... if the homeless come over to my house and do my yard work.


"If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that's been on shelves for more than five minutes, I'll give you 1,200 bucks for it." -- SCEA President Jack Tretton

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