A report released Monday, Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, says that "huge quantities" of so-called e-waste are being exported to China, Pakistan and India, where their subsequent handling presents a significant threat to human and environmental health.
The report was issued by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, with contributions from Toxics Link India, a Pakistani group called SCOPE, and Greenpeace China.
The centerpiece of the report is an investigation into the Guiyu area of southern China. The groups report that 100,000 poor and migrant workers break apart and process obsolete computers imported chiefly from North America. The operations include the burning of plastics, metals and components such as circuit boards, along with the dumping of CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors, according to the report.
"The operations involve men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved," the report says.
Environmentalists and governments around the world have turned increasing attention to the potential dangers posed by various components of electronic devices--from PCs to TV sets to cell phones--if they are not properly disposed of. A chief concern is lead, which is found in the solder on circuit boards and in the glass panels of CRT monitors. Other worrisome elements include mercury, cadmium and plastic compounds.
These worries have prompted the European Union to considerto stem the flow of electronic goods to landfills and reduce the use of hazardous materials. Action in the United States has been largely limited to local product take-back programs. California and Massachusetts both have banned CRT monitors from landfills, and two California senators last week proposed .
While the threat of releasing possible toxins into groundwater and the atmosphere gets the splashier headlines, there's a more mundane but still significant aspect to e-waste: volume. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that computers and other electronic goods are the fastest-growing tributary to the waste stream in the United States, accounting for about 220 million tons per year.
The efforts in the United States don't add up to much so far, according to the report's backers.
"The U.S. is developing very questionable practices to deal with the problem of e-waste, rather than (developing) an infrastructure that's able to deal with these problems," said Ted Smith, SVTC's executive director.
"We need to establish a market-based system where people are paid a living wage for their work, which should be done under safe conditions, and where the products are reused...(or otherwise) dealt with in appropriate ways," Smith said. "We're a long way from there."
Major electronics makers have condemned the practice of exporting obsolete PCs, TV sets and other gadgets to locales with lax environmental and worker safety laws, but they also say they're doing the best they can for now at trying to figure out how to tackle the problem.
"The argument people make, and it's a just concern, is should material be sent overseas to be put in a landfill or burnt in an incinerator? The answer is no," said Mark Small, vice president for environmental affairs at Sony. "Can everything be cost-effectively recycled here in the United States? The answer is, no it can't."
Small said that many Sony products sold in the United States are made overseas in places such as Malaysia and China, and when those products reach the end of their useful life, they may be sent back to the place of manufacture--to be handled in environmentally sound ways.
"Within the Sony company, and its suppliers, the standards are very high," he said. "For the most part, they are as good as the operations in the U.S. What's different is the infrastructure that some countries have to handle the waste."
International accords, but little progress
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has issued guidelines for the environmentally sound management of used and scrap PCs, described the used computer as a new business with "somewhat informal origins." Although refurbishment and reuse of PCs take place to some extent in all countries, the 30-nation OECD said, "it is considerably more prevalent in countries with transitional economies."
At least one international agreement focuses on the issue. The Basel Convention classifies CRT glass, mercury switches and other elements of computer scrap as hazardous waste. The United States has not ratified the convention.
The Exporting Harm report calls shipments of electronic scrap from industrialized nations to developing countries "a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution," which has been "studiously avoided" by the electronics industry, government officials and many recyclers.
It says that between 50 percent and 80 percent of the e-waste collected for recycling in the western United States is not recycled domestically, but rather shipped to destinations such as China. Market realities force even well-intentioned recyclers to take part in dumping.
A representative for the U.S. Commerce Department declined to comment.
But electronics makers and recyclers both acknowledge that scrap does get shipped abroad and improperly handled--whether in the dismantling or the ultimate disposal in landfills.
"A lot of our competitors choose to ship materials to China, both whole goods and parts?or ship 'scrap' over there for their economic benefit as opposed to doing the right thing environmentally," said Doug Steen, president of Belmont Technology Remarketing. "We don't ship scrap overseas."
It's the midsized to small companies--including some that operate out of their garages--that send scrap overseas to shore up their profits, "making $5 to $6 as opposed to spending $5 to $6," said Steen, whose company is one of the larger players in the recycling and reuse field.
"Our country is very guilty of sending scrap overseas," he said. "It's kind of like poisoning the world for personal profit."