The Circuit: Tracking America’s Electronic Waste

So, everybody, this is scenario 1. We’re
buying equipment. We look around and see what they have and we start haggling over the price. So any questions? No sir. I think it’s right up here about a quarter
of a mile. Jim Puckett is leading a team that’s going
undercover overseas to find out what actually happens to electronics that are sent to U.S. recyclers. Most of the public still thinks a recycler is a recycler and that they recycle it right there in America. They’re really exporters. And they don’t care what happens at the other end. It shows us ten meters out. Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action
Network, a Seattle-based watchdog group that investigates the afterlife of electronics. We are basically trying to stop the rich countries
from dumping their hazardous waste onto poor countries. In this case, Hong Kong. They’re running!
Running away? To get inside, a local driver and translator
posed as e-waste buyers. With people buying new computers and other
electronics more frequently than ever, electronicwaste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. On top of that, it contains toxic materials
that can poison people and the environment. This investigation began months ago, when
Puckett’s team put GPS tracking devices inside 200 old computers, printers and TVs. Then they dropped them off in locations across
the country — at recycling facilities, donation centers and electronics take-back programs, including some of the industry’s most reputable companies. We sat back and said where are they going
to go. And the little devices went out and spoke to us, saying, “This is where I am.” Puckett’s group partnered with Carlo Ratti
of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tracking is really the first step in order
to design a better system. One of the surprising things we discovered is how far waste travels.
You see this kind of global e-waste flows that actually almost covered the whole planet. Each device traveled an average of 2,500 miles
and around a third of the tracked computers were exported. Of those, most ended up here. Hong Kong is home to one of the world’s
busiest ports. Ships deliver more cargo than is possible
to inspect. As a result Hong Kong has a reputation for being a transit point for illegal trade
and smuggling of all kinds. Most of the exported tracked devices led puckett
to a little known part of Hong Kong called “The New Territories.” It’s really a frontier. It’s really cowboy
land out there. Puckett followed one tracked printer here
to a place that calls itself a farm. Farmland? Yeah, that’s a great farm in there. You would have no idea that there was a huge
scrap yard there until you look over the fence. Inside they found printers being taken apart
by immigrant workers. I am looking for asset tags to tell me where
the material came from. I look for the environmental harm issues. I look for the workstations to
see how these workers might be exposed. Many of the workers handle hazardous materials
without protective gear. One concern … Printer toner, a probable carcinogen. There is no protection of this labor force. There’s no occupational laws that are going to protect them. Jackson Lau is the head of the Hong Kong Recycling
Association. He runs a licensed recycling facility in the new territories. He says the
junkyards in the area that import e-waste are unlicensed and unregulated. Look at the tubes. Many many tubes thrown
on the ground here. The white fluorescent tubes light up LCD screens.
Each of them contains mercury, even a tiny amount can be a neurotoxin. Day in and day out, these workers are completely
oblivious to this hazard are smashing these. The tubes are breaking right in front of their
faces and mercury is very toxic. I ask him if he knows that the white tubes
are dangerous, he has no idea. The United States is the only developed nation
that hasn’t ratified an international treaty to stop first-world countries from dumping
e-waste on developing nations. Other developed nations set e-waste collection
mandates and require electronics manufacturers to pay for domestic e-waste processing. Further, the United States has no federal
laws requiring electronics to be recycled. Half of states allow electronics to be dumped
in landfills. John Shegerian is the CEO of Electronics Recycling
International, the largest e-waste recycling company in the United States. It takes hundreds of employees in each facility
to do the real work of electronic recycling. He says that some recyclers are exporting
to cut costs because in the last two years their biggest source of revenue has plummeted. At the height of the market, when we would
go to sell our steel, plastic, aluminum, gold, silver, palladium, copper, we were getting
about 14 to 15 cents a pound more than we are today. “Dell Reconnect, an exciting program that makes
getting rid of old technology easy.” Dell was the first major computer manufacturer
to ban the export of non-working electronics to developing countries. They partnered with
Goodwill, allowing people to drop off old computers of any brand for free to be refurbished
or recycled. The electronics are either dismantled on site
or sent to Dell’s recycling partners. Dell says more than 400 million pounds of
e-waste has been diverted from U.S. landfills because of their program. But the Basel Action Network and MIT’s investigation
concluded that the tracking devices placed in old computers and dropped off at participating
goodwill locations ended up in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Thailand. Beth Johnson manages Dell’s program. In a written statement, Goodwill Industries
said it is committed to responsible recycling, and encouraged its member organizations, which
are autonomous, to review their contracts with Dell. Back in Hong Kong, Puckett finds more clues
to the scale of the problem. A laptop with an LCD screen, ending up here
in Hong Kong in New Territories from the Los Angeles school system. Unbelievable. Puckett finds electronics from U.S. police
departments, jails, hospitals, and libraries. The government is always trying to save taxpayer’s
money. So they are obliged in some cases to always do the cheapest thing. For now, market forces are driving e-waste
exports. They’re just throwing it on the bank here. Without a federal law banning the export of
e-waste, there’s little incentive for the industry to change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *