E-Waste A Short History


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Even a minuscule amount of mercury can be a neurotoxin. The New Territories used to serve only as a pass-through for smuggled e-waste, Puckett said, where workers would unload shipping containers and put electronics on smaller trucks bound for mainland China. Puckett has been investigating the afterlife of consumer electronics for nearly two decades. Over the years, his team staked out U.

Many U. In the video, villagers desoldered circuit boards over coal-fired grills, burned plastic casings off wires to extract copper, and mined gold by soaking computer chips in black pools of hydrochloric acid. Researchers later found the region had some of the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world due to its e-waste industry.

Now, more than a quarter-century after that treaty was written, and more than 15 years since he exposed Guiyu, Puckett said little has changed. Estimates of U. The United Nations says that between 10 and 40 percent of U. While the International Trade Commission — through a survey of recyclers — said in that a mere 0. Puckett turned to GPS tracking technology as a new tool to determine just how big the e-waste export problem really might be. You see this kind of global e-waste flow that actually almost covered the whole planet. A pile of printer parts dusted with toners like carbon black, a possible carcinogen known to cause respiratory problems.

But a look over the fence reveals a lot the size of a football field piled 15 feet high with printers.


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Workers are breaking them. Their clothes are dusted black with toner ink, a probable carcinogen known to cause respiratory problems. Su talks to the workers and finds out many are migrants from mainland China, who are residing in Hong Kong without the official documents required for them to legally be there, she says.

They sell the most valuable components to buyers in mainland China, while workers indiscriminately dump the worthless leftovers. Several fires have broken out at junkyards in the past year, including two incidents in March that emitted plumes of toxic black smoke, according to local news reports.

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Courtesy of Cheung Choi. Burning e-waste is known to generate dioxins, a family of cancer-causing chemicals that endure for long periods of time in the environment and human body. More than a month after the fires, rusty metals and ashen plastics still emit chemical odors and blanket the soil along a nearby river. A fire in the New Territories in early March emitted a black plume. The photographer said the fire burned for several hours. Cheung Kwai Choi, a farmer who has lived in the region for a half-century, said the e-waste junkyards and fires have multiplied in recent years.

Hong Kong bans the import of hazardous e-waste like cathode ray tubes and flat-screens from the United States and other developed nations, according to Environmental Protection Department spokesperson Heidi Liu. Inside a quiet warehouse in the New Territories, Jim Puckett searches for clues in the clutter of electronic waste. At two junkyards, Puckett finds labels from a library, a hospital and other organizations in Washington and Oregon.

Then he finds a clue as to how these materials ended up here. Many boxes bear the logo for Total Reclaim, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the Pacific Northwest with contracts to handle e-waste from the City of Seattle , King County , the University of Washington and the State of Washington. Puckett started e-Stewards in to create a set of ethical and environmentally-friendly industry standards and prevent the export of toxic materials in lieu of federal laws.

Total Reclaim was a founding member. Electronics recyclers with e-Stewards certification can export the raw plastics and metals that come from dismantling electronics.

Is there a future for e-waste recycling? Yes, and it’s worth billions

But they adopt a strict no-export policy with regard to whole electronics with hazardous materials still inside. Of 28 tracked devices that were dropped off at Dell Reconnect locations, six went overseas, BAN concluded. In Dell created a take-back program called Dell Reconnect. That made it the first major computer manufacturer to ban the export of non-working electronics to developing countries. The computer maker partners with the nonprofit thrift store chain Goodwill Industries, which collects any brand of old computer for free to be refurbished or recycled.

BAN dropped off 28 tracked electronics at participating Goodwill locations and determined that six of the tracking devices went abroad — to Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and Thailand. Puckett followed those tracking devices overseas to junkyards in Hong Kong and Taiwan that import and dismantle whole electronics. A tracking device planted in a computer dropped off at a Dell Reconnect location led Puckett here, an abandoned field strewn with LCD monitors, CRT monitors, camcorders and keyboards.

The results showed that some of those exported electronics had been dropped off at green-certified recyclers. BAN plans to conduct further investigations before reporting more about these recyclers.

Electronic Waste (E-Waste): How Big of a Problem is it? | Rubicon Global

Both the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Washington Department of Ecology have launched investigations into whether Total Reclaim violated their state hazardous waste laws. Oregon regulators have also asked the state Department of Justice to open an investigation into whether Total Reclaim violated consumer protection laws.

Lorch said economic realities forced the company to renege on pledges to recycle all the waste that they collect. In recent years, LCD monitors have become a larger portion of the waste stream, but the flat-screens are expensive and time-consuming to dismantle. Prices for many commodities found in e-waste, a major source of revenue for electronics recyclers, have plunged in the past year. In January, copper fetched half its price, hitting the lowest level in seven years. Plastics prices have bottomed out, recyclers say. Harris, from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said those falling commodity prices have put many companies in trouble.

Plastics and metals from dismantled electronics await their turn to enter a machine that shreds and sorts them into commodity type.


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In a bear market for commodities, exporting waste is more profitable than processing it domestically. Recyclers simply fill a shipping container with whole electronics and an e-waste broker arranges for pick up. Printers, which hold little value, and LCD TVs, which are expensive to recycle because of the tedious dismantling work associated with mercury, make good candidates for export. Neu is the CEO of Hugo Neu, a New York-based e-waste recycler and e-Steward, that just months ago decided to shift its business model away from recycling.

Now it only refurbishes electronics for resale. The United States has no federal laws banning the export of e-waste. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has opposed versions of those bills, arguing that these types of laws on exports would harm the recycling sector and are unnecessary because the industry is well-regulated by existing federal and state laws. The country is home to a patchwork of state laws.

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This is the equivalent to a pile of e-waste eight times that of the Great Pyramid. The average Fortune company provides electronic devices to each employee. What is E-Waste? Where does it go? Guiyu, China. Batteries and E-Waste Batteries are an important component of the e-waste stream.

Strategies and Solutions Policies Over the past three decades, numerous policies have been developed to stem the flow of e-waste to developing countries and to ensure proper processing. The Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, adopted in , was developed in response to numerous scandals surrounding the international trafficking of hazardous waste in the s. The US, despite being the world's largest source of e-waste, is one of the only countries that has refused to ratify the Basel Convention.

Despite provisions aimed specifically at addressing the trade in hazardous waste, the Basel Convention has often been criticized as ineffective because it does not ban all exports of hazardous waste, its system of notification is weakly enforced, and there are no penalties for non-compliance. US Policy Many pieces of federal legislation have been proposed in recent years, but none have become law. A diverse array of state-level policies and regulations exist.

Twenty-five states have passed legislation requiring e-waste recycling. Most states have adopted a Product Stewardship approach, which places the burden on the manufacture to pay for recycling. Fewer than 20 states, however, have adopted bans that prohibit the disposal of e-waste in household trash. For more information, see the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's survey of state-level policies.


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Its aim was to increase recycling rates and reuse. Environmental advocates note that existing policies have too many loopholes and are not strictly enforced. Solutions One strategy for addressing the e-waste problem is to expand extended producer responsibility EPR policies. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an advocacy group working to address the e-waste problem, sees this as one of the best strategies, because it shifts responsibility from consumers and governments to retailers and manufacturers.

The cost of recovery and recycling can be included in the price at the time of sale. This system also incentivizes manufacturers to design products that are easier and more efficient to recycle.

Electronic waste

But for extended producer responsibility policies to succeed, strict policies on how e-waste is recycled are necessary. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition recommends a system of rigorous certification to ensure that recycling is undertaken safely with minimal risk to workers or the environment. Other countries and some U. As a result, many companies have significantly reduced the use of such toxins in their products, regardless of whether the products of going to be sold in the EU or elsewhere.

Finally, stronger laws are necessary to prohibit the export of e-waste to developing countries. Consultants involved in the industry argue that this can be achieved in two ways: by strengthening the policies that regulate trade in hazardous waste, such as the Basel Convention, and by supporter stronger domestic markets for recycled materials from e-waste.

Accessed November 25, ORG, n. Accessed June 22, Livens, Jay. Accessed July 22, Postell, Kendra. Accessed June 17, Rekacewicz, Philippe. Accessed July 20, Anna O. Leung et al.

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