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Recyclables take a world tour

Ever thought about what happens to your bottles and cans, once you send them off to be recycled? There is a good possibility that they end up on the other side of the world.

These recovered balls of recyclables at the Davis Street Transfer Center in San Leandro, Calif., will likely end up in China. Hanna Sistek/CNET News

Ever since I came to the United States from my native Europe, I have been curious about the country's recycling practices. What happens to the mess of old newspapers, plastic boxes, food cans, and wine bottles that piles up each week? (Back home, we have to arrange it all neatly in separate containers.)

I got the answer when I visited the Davis Street Transfer Center, a waste management center in San Leandro, Calif. Here is a photo gallery showing how that facility sorts through those messy heaps.

I was surprised to find out that, after being sorted at the center, a large portion of recyclables ends up in other parts of the world. They are simply handled as commodities, and prices are set by the global market. The rising price of crude oil has, for instance, boosted the value of plastic waste, which is made of oil.

"We sell to the highest bidder for most materials," said Rebecca Jewell, a recycling manager at Davis Street. "This includes plastics, paper, and cardboard. In most cases, the highest bidder is one Chinese company or another."

According to Jewell, the recovery system at Davis Street is advanced enough to produce stacks of tossed-out material, 98 percent of which are PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, which are popular in China. Other waste stations with less sophisticated sorting lines might sell recyclables to countries with lower demands on purity, like India or Bangladesh, she explained.

Shipping it overseas
It is very common for Western countries to ship their recyclables overseas to be processed and turned into new materials. But the byproducts of the recycling process can be devastating to local environments. (This Sky News video report features a city in China that's home to a major recycling center and is dealing with toxic pollution. And this video, made by Northern California Recycling Association, also confronts the effects of shipping waste overseas.)

Click for gallery

Electronic waste is even worse. Each year, millions of pounds of electronic waste, or e-waste, are generated in the United States, and an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of what gets collected is exported to other countries, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Check out their report "Exporting Harm" (PDF).

The tricky thing about e-waste--such as computers, televisions, and mobile phones--is that it often contains toxic elements and is very labor-intensive to recycle. If simply buried in landfills, the toxins will eventually trickle down into the ground, potentially getting into groundwater or otherwise causing environmental problems. Exporting e-waste to poor countries only moves the problem offshore. Also problematic is the fact that, in many cases, centers in other countries have lower worker safety standards than would be required of a center in the U.S.

So where does the e-waste end up? Here are some known and suspected global destinations, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. According to the coalition, 500 shipping containers with used computers reach Nigeria every month, cumulatively representing about 400,000 computers and monitors.

The lack of e-waste recycling systems is "the worst global example of waste mismanagement," according to the Basel Action Network. Its 2005 report (PDF) examines the effects of e-waste dumps in Africa.

In the rest of the world, toxic trade to developing countries is prevented by the Basel Convention, which the U.S. has signed but not ratified.

Less formal campaigns, such as the Take Back My TV Campaign, show an increased interest among consumers.

Europe has tougher standards, like the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, which forces producers to take back a variety of household appliances, including electronics. Another directive, Restriction on the use of certain Hazardous Substances, requires manufacturers to phase out hazardous substances in their products.