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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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Rocket ships
By Screwballl on 11/21/2007 11:35:53 AM , Rating: 2
So lets just find a cheap one way rocket ship to head off into unknown space with our tech garbage.. or all garbage for that matter. Maybe have the rocket propulsion separate close to the planet so that the rest of the rocket gets enough push to head into space and the rocket portion is reusable for the next launch. Maybe send it into the sun or Jupiter or somewhere so that it just doesn't litter space.
That should hold us over until matter transformation takes over and we can create a new motherboard from an old one.

RE: Rocket ships
By KristopherKubicki on 11/21/2007 12:00:24 PM , Rating: 2
Those who forget Futurama are doomed to repeat it!

Well, more seriously, do you know the cost per lb to send stuff into space? And when we do, there's still a fairly high risk that it might not make it there.

We're much better off carving out the bottom of a mountain and dumping stuff in a sealed quarantine.

RE: Rocket ships
By Cobra Commander on 11/21/2007 12:58:20 PM , Rating: 2
Someone needs to create a railgun capable of launching simple loads into outerspace. It has a special side benefit beyond the obvious as well: Surely we'll find out if intelligent life lives elsewhere if we can manage to use space as our trash can.

RE: Rocket ships
By AnnihilatorX on 11/21/2007 3:09:27 PM , Rating: 2
Space lifts would be much more feasible and cheaper

Rail guns have loads of technical limitation that we cannot achieve with current technology. While space lifts are in theory possible within the next 50 years.

But I would not like to see toxic wastes being dump on orbit or space. Most toxic waste or not are actually precious minerals. There are reports that some rare earth minerals will run out quicker than oil.

RE: Rocket ships
By Screwballl on 11/21/2007 3:38:16 PM , Rating: 2
ok so lets use this toxic waste as a propellant, its going into space anyways...

RE: Rocket ships
By jajig on 11/23/2007 1:48:36 AM , Rating: 2
Why carve out a mountain when mothernature has given us the Grand Canyon?

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins
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