An August 1 article describes the unintended consequences of what should be a success story: California’s ambitious e-waste disposal program. By offering cash to firms who collect and dismantle old computers and TVs, the state has also “built a magnet for fraud totaling tens of millions of dollars, including illegal material smuggled in from out of state,” writes Tom Knudson of McClatchy Newspapers.
Despite its problems, the California program has helped keep 840 million pounds of monitors and TVs out of landfills, according to McClatchy’s research. Domestic dismantling of e-waste is an important step towards stopping an ugly global trade in discarded electronics. While shiny new gadgets flow from Asia to customers in the US and Europe, old ones are shipped back to developing nations, where poor people perform the toxic task of stripping minerals from the machines.<!--StartFragment--><!--EndFragment-->
Consumers, regulators and investors have called for electronics manufacturers and retailers to better manage e-waste, but the most destructive practices tend to be performed by individuals and small firms outside the formal economy. In this context, California’s in-state recycling model may still prove instructive, especially as developing nations begin to generate more of their own e-waste.
Electronics Account for 70 Percent of Heavy Metals in US Landfills<!--StartFragment-->
Modern electronic devices can contain 60 different elements. When electronics enter the regular waste stream, the metals and chemicals they contain can potentially contaminate the soil and water. The Natural Resources Defense Council has stated that electronic waste accounts for 70 percent of the heavy metals found in municipal landfills, including lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium, which can potentially seep into ground water.
More Gold in a Ton of Electronics than in a Ton of Ore
Ideally, discarded electronics can be stripped of metals and rare minerals. This can be a profitable trade; one can extract more gold out of a ton of electronics than a ton of gold-bearing rock. In fact, some of the gold in recent Olympic medals came from e-waste.
Unfortunately, this recycling is often done in developing nations, where labor costs are lower and environmental and health regulations less stringent. Even companies that explicitly claim to process e-waste safely and locally have been found to have illegally shipped containers of waste to developing countries.
For example, in July 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency filed a Complaint and Compliance Order against EarthEcycle, a company handling e-waste disposal for several charities in Pittsburgh, for shipping cathode ray tubes to South Africa and Hong Kong after it had pledged to recycle the waste locally. The company was accused of exporting hazardous waste without authorization and failing to prepare a hazardous waste manifest.
US Government Accountability Office investigators have posed as Hong Kong-based foreign importers looking to buy e-waste; more than forty companies responded with offers, despite the fact that it is illegal to import e-waste into China under Hong Kong law, Chinese law and the Basel Convention.