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Watchdog group tracks what really happens to your ‘recycled’ e-waste

May 9, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
The U.S. leads the world in e-waste, and while electronic recycling is increasingly popular, what happens after consumers drop off their computers, phones and other products is less clear. A watchdog group has found a lot of tossed junk, with its toxic components, winds up in poorer nations -- and that very little recycling is going on. Special correspondents Ken Christensen and Katie Campbell of KCTS report.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: You buy a new smartphone or computer, and you take your old one to a local recycler. It’s the green thing to do, right?

Well, it turns out a lot of those devices may not be getting recycled at all.

From Seattle member station KCTS and public media’s environmental partnership EarthFix, Ken Christensen and Katie Campbell, who tells the tory, follow the e-waste trail.

JIM PUCKETT, Founder, Basel Action Network: So, everybody, this is scenario one. We’re buying equipment. We look around and see what they have and we start haggling over the price. So any questions?

WOMAN: No, sir.

JIM PUCKETT: I think it’s right up here about a quarter of a mile.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Jim Puckett is leading a team that’s going undercover to find out what actually happens to electronics that are sent to U.S. recyclers.

JIM PUCKETT: Most of the public still thinks that the recyclers are recycling, and that they are going to recycle right there in America.

It shows us 10 meters out.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based watchdog group that investigates the afterlife of electronics.

JIM PUCKETT: We are basically trying to stop the rich countries from dumping their hazardous waste onto poor countries.

KATIE CAMPBELL: In this case, China.

WOMAN: They’re running.

JIM PUCKETT: Running away?

(LAUGHTER)

KATIE CAMPBELL: To get inside, a local driver and translator posed as e-waste buyers.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Hello? We’re here to buy goods. We just want to see the electronics.

KATIE CAMPBELL: With people buying new computers and other electronics more frequently than ever, electronic waste 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 at locations across the country at recycling facilities, donation centers and electronics take-back programs, including some of the industry’s most reputable companies.

JIM PUCKETT: 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.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Puckett’s group partnered with Carlo Ratti of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

CARLO RATTI, Senseable City Lab: 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 cover the whole planet.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Each device traveled an average of about 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.

JIM PUCKETT: It’s really a frontier. It’s really cowboy land out there.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Puckett followed one tracked printer here to a place that calls itself a farm.

WOMAN: Farmland.

JIM PUCKETT: Farmland? Yes, 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.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Inside, they found printers being taken apart by immigrant workers.

JIM PUCKETT: 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.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Many of the workers handle hazardous material without protective gear. One concern? Printer toner, a probable carcinogen.

JIM PUCKETT: There is no protections of this labor force. There’s no occupational laws that are going to protect them.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Jackson Lau is the head of the Hong Kong Recycling Association. He runs a licensed recycling facility in the New Territories. And he says the junkyards in the area that import e-waste are unlicensed and unregulated.

JACKSON LAU, Hong Kong Recycling Association (through interpreter): These old electronics are usually being sorted and dismantled, because the leftover components are worthless. They are being dumped indiscriminately.

JIM PUCKETT: Look at the tubes, many, many tubes thrown on the ground here.

KATIE CAMPBELL: The white fluorescent tubes light up LCD screens. Each of them contains mercury, and even a tiny amount can be a neurotoxin.

JIM PUCKETT: 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.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Do you wear a mask?

MAN (through interpreter): No.

WOMAN: I ask him that if he knows that the white tubes are dangerous. He has no idea.

KATIE CAMPBELL: 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.

JOHN SHEGERIAN, CEO, Electronics Recycling International: It takes hundreds of employees in each facility to do the real work of electronic recycling.

KATIE CAMPBELL: He says that some recyclers are exporting to cut costs, because, in the last two years, their biggest source of revenue has plummeted.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: At the height of the market, when we would go to sell steel, plastic, aluminum, gold, silver, palladium, copper, we were getting about 14 to 15 cents a pound more than we are today.

NARRATOR: Dell Reconnect, an exciting program that makes getting rid of old technology easy.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Dell was the first major computer manufacturer to ban the export of nonworking 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 that more than 400 million pounds of e-waste have 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.

BETH JOHNSON, Dell Reconnect: If there’s something that did not follow the system, we would certainly want to know about it and we would certainly take corrective action.

KATIE CAMPBELL: 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.

JIM PUCKETT: A laptop with an LCD screen, ending up here in Hong Kong in New Territories from the Los Angeles school system. Unbelievable.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Puckett finds electronics from U.S. police departments, jails, hospitals, and libraries.

JIM PUCKETT: The government is always trying to save taxpayers’ money. So they are obliged in some cases to always do the cheapest thing.

KATIE CAMPBELL: For now, market forces are driving e-waste exports.

JIM PUCKETT: Just throwing it on the bank here.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Without a federal law banning the export of e-waste, there’s little incentive for the industry to change.

For KCTS and the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Katie Campbell.

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