Modern-day alchemy is alive and thriving. Impoverished populations in China, India, Nigeria and Ghana burn old desktop computers, hard drives and circuit boards, breathing in metallic fumes while searching for minuscule amounts of gold and other valuable metals embedded in computer chips. Sometimes the men, women and children who spend hours each day burning plastic, wires, tin and lead-laden tubes are rewarded with hard drives holding personal data that they can sell to scammers. Other days, the tools of the 21st century are ripped apart, then dumped into rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals, their toxins permeating well water, their poisonous fumes pervading entire communities.
Old laptops and cellphones, quickly trashed when their owners upgrade, are called hazardous electronic waste, or e-waste. In recent years, U.S. recycling companies have evaded environmental standards, exporting large quantities of e-waste to developing countries, most of which don’t have the technology to properly salvage electronics or the political will to protect their workers from toxic materials.
“It’s cheaper for e-recycling to take place overseas,” said Mike Enberg, the e-Stewards manager at Basel Action Network, a watchdog organization focused on the “toxic trade,” or American exportation of e-waste to Third World countries. “There are few environmental and safety requirements overseas and labor is very inexpensive.”
The incentive of offshore labor, though, does not factor in the impacts the toxic trade causes, according to Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who have joined forces to corral the practice.
Introduced early this week, HR 2284, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011, aims to prohibit exportation of restricted electronics containing toxic material.
The legislation would add a section to the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control hazardous waste. It would allow the agency to ban exportation of restricted electronic equipment, defined by its concentrations of certain hazardous metals.
So far 25 states have passed e-waste-recycling legislation, including California, but these laws do not ban exports, a trade issue outside the jurisdiction of states. California’s electronics recycling allows for the collection and recycling of laptops, portable DVD players and most televisions with a screen bigger than 4 inches. These devices are identified by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control as hazardous waste when discarded.
“The states have been passing laws that are already increasing the amount of e-waste collected for recycling, instead of land-filling,” said Kate Sinding, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unfortunately, these laws can’t stop recyclers from simply sending our e-waste, and our jobs, to developing nations where improper handling threatens health and the environment. But Congress can.”
Companies in developing countries, paid unknown amounts to salvage e-waste, burn devices, flush them with acids, and melt their parts in unsafe conditions. Critics say 80% of children in Guiyu, China, a region where many “recycled” electronics wind up, have elevated levels of lead in their blood from the toxins in those electronics, many of which comes from the U.S.
Burning the plastics in the electronics produces deadly dioxin or furans, which are breathed in by workers and nearby residents, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an organization for responsible recycling.
The coalition, along with the Basel Action Network and manufacturers Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Apple and Best Buy, have pushed to end the dumping of e-waste in developing countries. They also are pushing recycling companies in the U.S. to abide by EPA safety standards, upgrade their recycling technology and create more jobs.
“This bill accomplishes two things," Green said. "First, it prevents hazardous material from being shipped where it will be mishandled and cause health and environmental damage, and second, it is a green jobs bill and will create work here in the U.S., processing these used products in safe ways. applaud HP for leading on this issue and their responsible recycling.”
Companies that recycle e-waste domestically, such as eSCO Processing & Recycling, based in Arkansas, tout the ban as a jobs producer. “Not only is this bill good for the environment, but it gives a boost to small-business recyclers and creates more green jobs. This is what both the industry and our customers want,” said eSCO Chief Executive Dewayne Burns.
Some, however, believe the bill would eliminate jobs by forcing recycling companies to cut labor costs to compensate for expensive technological upgrades.
“The expectation is that current recyclers can and should do better to invest in their companies and become more responsible,” Enberg said, “thereby keeping those jobs and their business.”
Thompson said the bill also addresses national security concerns: E-waste exports, including government computers and hard drives, have been found with sensitive government data still in them, according to Caroline Hogan, spokeswoman for the congressman.
In a 2009 Frontline/World report, hard drives containing information about U.S. government contracts with the Defense Intelligence Agency, NASA, and the Department of Homeland Security were uncovered in an e-waste dump in Ghana.
Rare-earth minerals found in cellphones and computers are also key to national security. The 17 metallic elements that make up rare-earth metals are vital to the production of clean-energy technologies, including hybrid cars, wind turbines and solar panels. They also are key to manufacturing numerous weapons, and China controls 97% of the world’s supply.
The Government Accountability Office has warned that the U.S has become dependent on other countries for it rare-earth metals, putting the nation in a precarious position as China has reduced exports and increased export taxes on the materials by 15% to 25% because of its own surge in consumption in recent years.
The bill includes provisions for research into recycling and recovery of these precious metals from electronics.
In 2010, Thompson authorized a provision in HR 2701, the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2010, that will require the inspector general of the intelligence community to study threats posed to national security by governmental e-waste and identify methods to decrease vulnerability. The report is due by October.
“[HR 2284] is both a boon to the health of our environment and our U.S. economy,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network. “With it, we stop squandering critical metals resources, stop poisoning children, and we create good recycling industry jobs in the USA at the same time.”
The bill has bipartisan support, including Republican co-sponsors Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska. The legislation also has the support of 29 recyclers with 74 operations in 34 states.