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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: Dirty Little Secret?
By KristopherKubicki 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 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.

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).

"" - 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 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.

RE: Dirty Little Secret?
By BladeVenom on 11/21/2007 4:01:41 PM , Rating: 2
I found an aircraft carrier.
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:

"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.

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA
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