November 19, 2007 —
Part of our society’s growing green practices as ethical and socially conscious consumers is to recycle old computers, monitors, drives, televisions, cell phones and other electronic gadget waste. Rather than heading into landfills where they never breakdown or exude harmful chemicals outdated electronic waste is given to companies specializing in recycling all those parts into other useful goods. They can also refurbish the computers and send them back into the consumer world as assistance to nonprofits. But our e-waste in many cases is not being recycled here, but is being shipped out of America as a global jet stream of electronic waste to countries with low-wage workers. It is an exported pollution and dangerous to workers involved.
Observers (inside and outside the industry) give fairly good estimates that from 50-80 percent of the 300,000-400,000 tons of annual U.S. e-waste is shipped overseas. That tonnage is received by workers in India, China or Nigeria and taken apart by hand with household tools. The workers are continuously exposed to hazardous toxins. Those same toxins end up in the recycling site environment. Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network (Seattle-based environmental group) tipped off authorities in Honk Kong on the problem. He commented in a news report, “It is being recycled, but it is being recycled in the most terrible way.”
The main conduit for the farmed out waste are the enormous free recycling drives encouraging millions of people to bring in their old computers during notable cultural times like April’s Earth Day. Organizations trying to do good—but wanting to do it on a tight budget—hire the least expensive companies to handle the actual recycling. They don’t ask enough questions to find out what exactly happens to the waste. Unethical recyclers will harvest some of the stuff that is valuable, then sell the rest to scrap exporters.