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The Truth About E-Waste

Trail of toxins

Typical computers contain lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium—a stew of potential neurological damage, cancer, lung disease, and impaired development in children. The worst are cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions, which hold pounds of lead. “By some estimates, 70 percent of all the heavy metals in U.S. landfills come from electronics,” says Sarah O’Brien, outreach and communications director of an organization called Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. EPEAT was founded on an EPA grant to encourage computer manufacturers to pursue “green design”—making devices that contain fewer toxins and are easier to recycle. Those that comply get EPEAT certification that is now a requirement for, among other things, most federal government purchases of electronic equipment. “When landfills eventually leak, releasing toxins into the groundwater, surface water or air, those electronics become hazardous to the communities they’re in,” O’Brien says.

With state laws increasingly pushing for recycling of e-waste, the overall picture may be changing, the EPA says. Though figures aren’t available yet, the portion headed for recyclers is probably growing.

And indeed, it was an electronics recycling event at a Baltimore County elementary school to which Leon Williams was headed with his truckload of electronics. Sounds like an ideal solution?

Not necessarily.

Exporting disease

Each morning, children and teenagers pour out of slums in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa, heading to informal scrap yards where they earn a dollar or two for a day’s work. They smash old televisions and burn wiring ripped from computer cases to harvest copper inside. Technically they’re recycling, but there’s nothing “green” about this process. Heavy metals pollute the ground; toxic chemicals waft in the air.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles east in mainland China just north of Hong Kong, entire families have been doing the same work all day, and on an even larger scale. This part of Guangdong Province is where scientists in 2007 measured the highest airborne dioxin readings ever.

For years, environmentalists have complained that much of the electronic waste dumped overseas comes from recycling companies in the United States and other industrialized countries. U.S. safety regulations and minimum-wage laws make it costly to recycle CRTs here, but doing so can bring a small profit elsewhere. So recycling companies sell them to international brokers.

“Hong Kong customs estimates there are 50 to 100 containers a day that are illegal under Hong Kong law going into their port, primarily from the United States,” says Jim Puckett, founder and executive director of the Basel Action Network, or BAN. The organization formed to advocate for U.S. participation in the international Basel Convention, a treaty designed to prevent the dumping of toxic waste in the developing world, and a treaty that the United States has signed but not ratified.

The U.S. EPA has little authority to stop such shipments, which are legal from the United States even though they violate Hong Kong law. One U.S. measure known as the CRT Rule forbids shipments of broken TVs and monitors without first notifying customs officials in receiving countries. But the rule has no teeth, Puckett says.

His contention is confirmed by an August 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The damning report revealed that one recycler exporting CRTs overseas while ignoring regulations against the practice was a leading collector of electronic waste in Baltimore County—the municipality where Williams was planning to get rid of his broken computers and TVs.

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