What's the Truth Behind the Global eWaste Trade?

September 9, 2011

It’'s a no-brainer that when we get a new cell phone or computer we want to do our environmental-best by recycling the old one. But an NPR radio piece from the gadget-and-gizmo-purchasing 2010 holiday season might raise the concern of any environmentally conscious techie who thought she had done her due diligence by putting her old motherboard in a blue bin.

 

In this Fresh Air segment called After Dump, What Happens to Electronic Waste?, NPR spoke with Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a charitable organization dedicated to keeping toxic waste out of the environment.

 

According to Puckett, "The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material very quickly finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan -- where very dirty things happen to it."

 

What kind of dirty things is Puckett referring to? Well, in these countries, with their lax (if any) environmental laws, the process of stripping and burning our old has-beens has become a way of life for the poor, sometimes with deadly consequences. Bryan Walsh authored a 2009 Time article titled e-Waste Not where he spoke of "Guiyu, China, a recycling hub where peasants heat circuit boards over coal fires to recover lead, while others use acid to burn off bits of gold." Guiyu, he goes on to say, has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.

The Basel Action Network presents one side of the story, but it turns out there are plenty who think the trade is a good thing. For example, Adam Minter, an American writer in Shanghai, wrote a great series of blogs for The Atlantic, reprinted on his own blog, Shanghai Scrap, where he proposes that overall this refurbishing creates sustainable jobs and a path to development for poorer nations. His view on all the attention: "Few China-related stories are more popular, and recur more often, than accounts of how American electronic wastes such as old computers and monitors are 'dumped' in developing countries. It's a visually gripping story ... but the problem is that the situation has long been far more complicated than what’s been depicted."

 

 

Maybe it's the peace-making middle-child in me, but I imagine the truth, as usual, belongs somewhere in the middle. It sounds to me like the battle-cry should be less about halting the export of eWaste and more about the ethical recyling of eWaste.

 

If you read through Minter's blogs, you'll see pictures of successful men and women working in sanitary, large-scale factory operations, making both good money and good wages. Take, for example, the zorba sorters. Mainly comprised of women (because they’re better sorters), they take what’s left after the steel has been removed from automobiles. These women are "highly trained, in the art of, say, distinguishing a fist-sized piece of zinc from a fist-sized piece of aluminum," and, because of the great demand for their skills, they "enjoy income far in excess of recent Chinese university grads." Life looks pretty good for them. These are the folks working in fair-trade ethical recycling plants. These are the success stories.

 

But in other places, the poor are taken advantage of. Back in Guiyu, for example, the mayor staves off 60 Minutes with a tour of a clean and tidy recycling shop, but not for long. Reporters eventually get past that front to find rivers black with ash and peasants who talk about their burning lungs. Here, people recycle in the same space where they live. In Guiyu, seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood.

 

What does this mean for you? This global eWaste trade is a lucrative one, and some American recycling companies have been known to take advantage of the few American laws regarding the export of electronic waste. When recycling your stuff, make sure it’s going to a reputable recycler. You can check the Basel Action Network's website for a list of approved e-Stewards. In addition, before purchasing new products, check out their score on EPEAT, a score measured by looking at (among other criteria) the reduction or elimination of toxic materials put in the product in the first place.

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