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The Truth About E-Waste

On a sunny Saturday last fall, Leon Williams got to work hauling them from the basement of his Baltimore home, yanking them free of entertainment centers, untangling cords. When he’d finished, some of the casualties of modern life—damaged, destroyed or obsolete electronic and computer gear—were piled in front of him. Together these relics had cost thousands of dollars new. Now they were worthless.

There was the laptop computer the 62-year-old U.S. Treasury Department worker had given his granddaughter: “She dropped a Coke in it.”

And an ailing, five-year-old desktop PC: “It’s cheaper to buy a new one than fix it.”

A malfunctioning TV: “I came home from work one day to a picture an inch high.”

And two ancient VCRs and another old TV that still worked. But, he reasoned, “if I’m getting rid of junk, I’ll get rid of all of it.” So he muscled everything into the bed of his pickup truck.

What happened next wouldn’t matter much if Leon Williams’ collection of old electronics were unusual. But as he drove away from his house that day laden not only with junk, but with some of what the law considers hazardous waste, he was just like most of us.

Our high-tech era

Welcome to the golden age of electronics. Television screens have never been bigger or produced sharper images. Bargain-basement computers that sell for less than $200 are exponentially faster and cheaper than the $3,000 IBM PCs of the early 1980s. Tiny cellphones are more versatile than desktop computers of a decade ago. Consumption of these devices is staggering, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reporting 64 million PCs and 182 million cellphones sold in the United States in 2007 (the latest year for which data have been published).

In fact, it’s always the golden age of electronics. It’s a cliché to cite Moore’s law, named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore. But the law, stating computer processing power doubles every two years, has been borne out over decades. It means there’s always something better, faster, more powerful just over the next wave.

The phenomenon affects more than the tech-obsessed young. In fact, people in their 50s express the greatest interest in buying things like cellphones and HDTVs, as cited in a recent AARP report on boomers and technology. Certainly they have the money for it. “By next year one-third of the U.S. population will be over 50. That’s close to 106 million Americans controlling 50 percent of the country’s discretionary spending and outspending younger adults by $1 trillion in 2010,” wrote futurist Michael Rogers, the report’s author.

So when the high-tech wave has passed on to even greater advances, tons of outdated junk will be left floating in its wake—much of it no doubt in older Americans’ basements. By the EPA’s estimate, 42 million computers—382,000 tons worth—were ready for “end of life management” in 2007. So were 27 million televisions, 30 million computer monitors, 140 million mobile phones, and more than 100 million keyboards and mice. And even though the recession still looms, newer, better electronics will surely flow into homes this holiday season, leaving behind old, high-tech trash in their wake.

Where to dump?

Leon Williams owned only a tiny portion of that mountain of e-waste, but it was occupying the bed of his truck. What were his options?

In most parts of the United States, he could simply dump it in a landfill. That’s what happens to 80 percent of e-waste, the EPA recently estimated. But for Williams it wasn’t possible. Maryland is one of 20 states where recent laws require computer manufacturers to fund recycling programs, and his municipal laws make landfill dumping of e-waste illegal. “The trash collectors won’t touch electronic junk if you set it out,” Williams said.

These laws acknowledge a crucial fact about e-waste—it’s a small percentage of the overall solid waste stream in the United States, but a huge potential source of pollution.

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.

Stemming the e-trash tide

So far, efforts to push federal legislation simply banning e-waste exports to poor countries have failed, and emphasis has shifted to developing capacity to recycle electronics domestically. One approach, sponsored by BAN and other environmental groups, is a voluntary certification program for companies called e-Stewards, which sets rigorous standards based on the Basel Convention. In the current state of “e-waste anarchy,” as Puckett calls it, just about anyone can label himself a recycler. But if the e-Stewards Initiative wins enough support, such companies that simply export rather than actually recycle electronics would be marginalized.

Some major recyclers are onboard, including Ohio-based Redemtech. In order to sign a contract with an important customer years ago, Redemtech managers had to promise that electronic waste would not be improperly unloaded overseas. “I looked into the issue and became aware of the problems we as recyclers were causing in the developing world,” said Bob Houghton, Redemtech president. Reuse or recycling is now standard practice, and the company audits the recyclers it does business with to ensure they meet its standards, Houghton says.

Meanwhile, EPA and others, including recyclers and electronics manufacturers, have developed a competing voluntary certification program called Responsible Recycling, or R2. In November, Texas-based Waste Management Inc. became the first company to be certified under R2. The program also requires adherence to a rigorous set of standards, but differs notably from e-Stewards in not focusing on the Basel Convention’s export limitations. Differences between the programs aside, the U.S. electronics recycling industry appears headed toward systems requiring greater accountability.

Gone, but where?

Leon Williams wheeled into a Baltimore County elementary school parking lot, where several young men from a local recycling company unloaded his truck in seconds. He paid and drove away.

“By chance I saw a program about the electronics dumps in China and India,” Williams said later. “I wanted to do the right thing and recycle, and all I can say is, I hope my stuff doesn’t end up like that.”

Signs are promising it won’t. That’s because Williams paid the local recycler $15 to dispose of each television. “You have to pay to recycle those responsibly,” Redemtech’s Houghton said. “What he paid covers recycling, plus a small margin for the recycler. Hopefully, that’s what happened.”

But in America’s current state of e-waste anarchy, there’s almost no way to tell.

Chris Carroll is a freelance journalist in Maryland.

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