Not long ago, CBS’ “60 Minutes” program broadcast a story on e-waste and global dumping. The reporters followed a trail of electronic recycling items from a Denver-based company all the way to Hong Kong, China and caught the so-called “recycling” company red-handed engaging in global e-waste dumping.
With over 80% of recycled electronics and computers ending up as high-tech e-waste in developing countries such as China, India, and Africa, we need to step up as responsible citizens of the world and choose computer and electronics recycling companies very carefully. We must support only those electronics recycling companies that are running both a socially and an environmentally sound operation, end-to-end. To understand how global dumping occurs, it helps to first understand the business model for electronic recycling.
To sustain as a business, electronic recyclers must generate enough revenues from all its recycling and reuse services and the reclamation of precious metals and other recycling materials, minus operating costs and the cost of de-manufacturing those items that yield no value (yet harm the environment).
The difference between an environmentally responsible computer and electronics recycling company and an irresponsible one can be broken down as follows: a) the way they generate reuse revenues; b) how they reclaim precious metals and recycling materials; c) how they manage the de-manufacturing process of low-value, toxic elements.
Consider the precious metal reclamation process for a moment. A responsible company would need to invest in having a safe working environment with proper protective gear for it workers and proper waste treatment procedures to prevent environmental contamination. In addition, a responsible electronics recycling company will operate using specialized de-manufacturing equipment that protects the workers from the harmful materials or dust that escapes during the de-manufacturing process.
An irresponsible recycling company avoids any investment in the de-manufacturing area. In fact, irresponsible recycling companies never lay eyes on the workers who eventually break apart the leftover electronic parts. As seen in the “60 Minutes” program, those workers are typically low-paid laborers from remote villages, who use bare hands and primitive tools such as chisels and hammers to pry the precious materials from the discarded items. The final discarded parts are then dumped anywhere – in rivers or streams or burned in a swamp – causing major public health issues.
The most hazardous materials found in e-waste are not the reclaimed precious metals, but the low-value, toxic materials such as Mercury found in switches and flat screens and the brominated flame retardants used on printed circuit boards, cables and plastic casings. These are the materials that require major investment in the de-manufacturing process. In summary, the cost to operate a safe operating de-manufacturing facility makes responsible electronic recycling much more difficult than the much used alternate: global dumping.
Yielding to the higher reclaim prices offered by the irresponsible global dumpers, many so-called recycling collectors send their materials to irresponsible recyclers, who in turn “sell” the recycling cargo to exporters. A few handshakes later and the e-waste cargo arrives at the ports of the global village’s poorest countries. Since the U.S. prohibits dumping of electronic waste in other countries, most of the e-waste cargo is shipped under the label “Used Equipment,” whereas in fact most of the recycled electronic waste is either too old or too out-of-order to have any reuse value.
In order to identify a responsible recycling company, one must first be able to pinpoint the telltale signs that a recycling company engages in global dumping.
Irresponsible recycling companies:
- Avoid educating the public about the e-waste crisis either on their company Web site or in their company marketing collateral. Irresponsible electronics recyclers make it look very easy so that the consumer won’t ask any questions.
- Omit details about how they track and manage the recycling process to avoid global dumping. Again, the less the consumer knows, the easier it is for an irresponsible electronics recycler to engage in some form of global dumping
- Host greenwash events with reputable nonprofits that don’t understand the proper recycling process. By making the electronics recycling process sound easy and by hiding under the guise of fundraising for schools, chambers of commerce, police association leagues and other nonprofits, these electronics recyclers further disarm the general public about “donating” their unwanted electronics at “fundraising” events. Electronics recyclers participating at a greenwash fundraiser do not charge any recycling fees, yet generate enough funds to donate to the nonprofit and can still pay the high costs of de-manufacturing toxic elements. This business model doesn’t exist because it is simply too good to be true. It’s also an abuse of the goodwill of the nonprofits involved. The truth is, these fundraising “recyclers” collect items that can be reclaimed for cash and then dump the rest on developing countries. They incur minimal handling costs by selling them as “exports.” That is how 80% of computer and electronics recycling materials in the U.S. end up as e-waste in developing countries.
- Fail to provide either a permanent address for their electronics recycling facility or a proper permit to operate as a recycler. Many use a P.O. Box or just a phone number that they publish during neighborhood pick-up campaigns. When you call, it always goes directly to an answering machine. There is no one available to tell you more about their services.
Now that you know how to identify an irresponsible electronic recycling company, let’s review what a responsible electronics recycling company looks like.
- Look for an electronics recycler who states a corporate commitment to addressing the global e-waste crisis.
- Use computer and electronics recycling companies that actively educate the public about the e-waste crisis and the socially responsible way to recycle and de-manufacture.
- Make sure your electronics recycling company can demonstrate its thorough process in evaluating reuse items, items for de-manufacturing and also its monitoring system to keep track of the entire de-manufacturing process.
- Support electronics recyclers who use only U.S.-based de-manufacturing facilities that have the proper permits, de-manufacturing machines and processes and safety and health monitoring system for their workers.
- Use computer and electronics recyclers that generate enough revenues from services to be able to allocate the proper budget toward responsible processing of toxic materials.
- Choose an electronics recycler that is well respected by environmentalists who have been focused on the e-waste crisis. These environmentalists have seen firsthand how dumping occurs and are very knowledgeable about how to identify responsible recyclers.