Monday, June 9, 2008

Recycling Overseas E-Waste

What do you do to your old computer or cell phones? Do you put them in the trash right away? Do you know what happens to them afterwards? Do you think these items are recycled? If you don't know what happens to your old electronic gadgets after you throw them away, chances are, you are guilty of contributing to a global trade in electronic trash that endangers workers and pollutes the environment overseas.

While there are no precise figures, activists estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas. Workers in countries such as China, India, and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners, and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables. In the process, these workers expose themselves to harmful substances even as these junk become cocktail of toxic chemicals that pollute the environment.

Recycling industry officials say that the gear most likely to be shipped abroad is collected at free recycling drives, often held each April around Earth Day. The sponsors which are usually composed of companies, schools, cities, and counties, often hire the cheapest firms and do not ask enough questions about what becomes of the discarded equipment. Many so-called recyclers simply sell the working units and components, then give or sell the remaining scrap to export brokers.

The problem could get worse. Most of the old electronics discarded annually by Americans goes to U.S. landfills, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. But a growing number of states are banning such waste from landfills, which could drive more waste into the recycling stream and fuel exports.

Many brokers claim they are simply exporting used equipment for reuse in poor countries. That’s what happened in Hong Kong last year, when customs officials were tipped off by environmentalists and intercepted two freight containers. They cracked the containers open and found hundreds of old computer monitors and televisions discarded by Americans thousands of miles away. China bans the import of electronic waste, so the containers were sent back to the U.S.

The company that shipped out the containers was based in Tennessee was a subsidiary of a Chinese company. The general manager said his company thought it was buying and shipping used computers, not old monitors and televisions, and is trying to get its money back.

There’s a huge market for second-hand computers among developing countries. People from these countries welcome these products since more often than not, they are priced lower than the brand new ones.

Activists complain that most exporters don’t test units to make sure they work before sending them overseas. They say that “reuse” is the new passport for export, which other countries are receiving these equipments under the pretext that it's all going to be reused. At the other end, at customs, the goods don’t always get checked either.

Environmentalists say that it is impossible to stop and check every single container imported into other countries such as Hong Kong, since smugglers may also deliberately declare their waste as goods. Last year, Hong Kong authorities returned 85 containers of electronic junk, including 20 from the U.S.

Exporting most electronic waste isn’t illegal in the United States. The U.S. does bar the export of monitors and televisions with cathode-ray tubes without permission from the importing country, but federal authorities don’t have the resources to check most containers.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the problem but doesn’t believe that stopping exports is the solution since most electronics are manufactured abroad. The said agency believes that it makes more sense to recycle them abroad.

The EPA is working with environmental groups, recyclers, and electronics manufacturers to develop a system to certify companies that recycle electronics responsibly. But so far the various players have not agreed on standards and enforcement.

Many activists believe the answer lies in requiring electronics makers to take back and recycle their own products. Such laws would encourage manufacturers to make products that are easier to recycle and contain fewer dangerous chemicals.

Resource: Cecill Artates is an artist and a part-time writer for a women's magazine. Her interest includes writing articles on women's health, women empowerment, and environmental awareness.

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