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
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
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
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
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.