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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 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
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
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.

"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." -- Robert Heinlein
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