Consumers in the US generate an estimated 3.14 million tons of electronic waste annually, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and about 40 percent of this—50,000 dump trucks a year—goes to be recycled. A 2016 study by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit that aims to end the global trade in toxic electronic waste, found that nearly one-third of these devices is exported to developing countries, where the low-tech dismantling of the recycled equipment contaminates the environment and endangers workers, many of whom are children. “People have a right to know where their stuff goes,” BAN’s executive director Jim Puckett told Katie Campbell and Ken Christensen of KCTS9/EarthFix in May 2016.
From July 2014 to December 2015, BAN installed GPS tracking devices in 200 used, nonfunctional pieces of computer equipment, delivered the equipment to publicly accessible electronic waste recycling drop-off sites around the US, and then followed what happened to the equipment.
As of May 2016, BAN found that sixty-five of the devices (approximately 32 percent) were exported, rather than recycled domestically. Based on laws in the places where the electronics went, BAN estimated that sixty-two of the devices (31 percent) were likely to be illegal shipments. Puckett told the Intercept that the GPS tracking devices are “like little lie detectors … They tell their story and they tell it dispassionately.”
BAN partnered with Carlo Ratti of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab to determine exactly where the equipment went. Ratti told the PBS NewsHour that he and his fellow researchers were surprised by how far waste traveled. Global e-waste flows “actually almost cover the whole planet.” Each recycled device in the BAN study traveled an average of 2,500 miles.
Most equipment went to Hong Kong, but BAN tracked devices to ten different countries including China, Taiwan, Pakistan, Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, and Kenya. Elizabeth Grossman, writing for the Intercept, quoted Puckett as describing Hong Kong’s New Territories, near the Chinese border, as the “new ground zero” for e-waste processing. As the Chinese government has cracked down on electronic waste imports, Chinese workers have crossed the border to Hong Kong without official documentation to do similar work there.
If improperly disposed, e-waste can release a variety of toxins, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. However, the US only restricts e-waste exports of one type of component, cathode ray tubes. Though many US states prohibit dumping used electronics in landfills and have e-waste recycling programs, no federal law regulates e-waste recycling.
In Hong Kong, Puckett, a Chinese journalist and translator, and a local driver followed a GPS signal to a fence with a sign identifying the land on the other side as farmland. Peering over the fence, Puckett found workers covered in black toner ink—a probable carcinogen associated with respiratory problems—breaking up printers that were piled fifteen feet high across a lot as big as a football field. “There is no protection of this labor force … There are no occupational laws that are going to protect them,” Puckett said. Earlier, at another site where workers dismantled LCD TVs, they found workers without protective facemasks who were unaware of the mercury vapors released when the fluorescent tubes that light the LCD screens break. Even in trace amounts, mercury can be a neurotoxin.
Since 1989, 182 national governments and the European Union have signed the Basel Convention, an international treaty to stop developed countries from dumping hazardous waste in less developed nations. As EarthFix reported, the US is the world’s only industrialized country that has not ratified the treaty.
In April 2016, US News & World Report published an article anticipating the release of BAN’s report, Disconnect: Goodwill and Dell Exporting the Public’s E-waste to Developing Countries. Otherwise, it has been poorly covered in the US corporate press.
Katie Campbell and Ken Christensen, “On the Trail of America’s Dangerous, Dead Electronics,” KCTS9/EarthFix, May 9, 2016, http://www.opb.org/news/series/circuit/tracking-dangerous-dead-electronics/.
Katie Campbell and Ken Christensen, “Watchdog Group Tracks What Really Happens to Your ‘Recycled’ E-Waste,” PBS NewsHour, PBS, broadcast May 9, 2016, transcript, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/watchdog-group-tracks-what-really-happens-to-your-recycled-e-waste/.
Elizabeth Grossman, “GPS Tracking Devices Catch Major U.S. Recyclers Exporting Toxic E-Waste,” Intercept, May 10, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/05/10/gps-tracking-devices-catch-major-u-s-recyclers-in-improper-e-waste-exports/.