See Where the Electronic Junk You Thought You Recycled Ends Up

A new report finds that old phones, computers, and other electronic waste sent to U.S. recycling centers are heading to landfills in developing countries.

An employee examines electronic waste waiting to be dismantled and recycled at a recycling plant in Holliston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Zoran Milich/Getty Images)

Oct 4, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Environmental watchdog group Basel Action Network wanted to find out what happens when discarded computers, televisions, and other electronic devices are sent to recycling centers in the United States.

So Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, and his team planted GPS devices on 205 electronic products and dropped them off at recycling centers and charities. They tracked them and discovered that more than 40 percent of the products were shipped offshore, winding up in landfills in Hong Kong, mainland China, and elsewhere.

Their report, titled Scam Recycling: e-Dumping on Asia by U.S. Recyclers, used data collected from two years of following the journey of old electronics. BAN found that some 75 recycling companies—many of which claim that they do not export e-waste—did sell products overseas, and most of those went to developing countries.

Puckett said he went to sites where the tracking devices ended up and found some of the old televisions, printers, and LCD screens the team had tagged.

A map shows the destinations of the electronic products tagged with trackers in the e-Trash Transparency Project. (Map: Basel Action Network)

“One of the spots we visited were some islands in an area called New Territories in Hong Kong,” Puckett said. “These junkyards used to be staging yards, where they kept the electronic products before they were sent to mainland China, but now they are doing the dismantling there, smashing products, and the workers seemed completely unaware of the health dangers such as mercury tubes in those old products.”

BAN worked with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Labs to map the export paths of the tracked electronics, determining that 74 of the 205 items ended up outside the U.S. An interactive online map shows that electronics traveled to Hong Kong (37 items), mainland China (11), Taiwan (5), Pakistan (4), Mexico (3), Thailand (2), Canada (2), and one time each to the United Arab Emirates, Togo, Kenya, Cambodia, and the Dominican Republic.

The problem of e-waste starts with the constant consumption and discarding of everything from personal computers to smartphones. The United Nations estimates that 20 to 50 metric tons of e-waste are generated worldwide annually. Much of that discarded equipment is shipped to developing countries, where old electronics are either repaired or broken down so copper, gold, and other valuable materials can be extracted.

Manufacturing companies often have programs in which consumers can return old printers or computers at no charge to be recycled. Taxpayer dollars are often used to help subsidize the cost of recycling.

For e-waste recycling companies, the cost of extracting materials from the machines is often higher than the actual value of the raw materials. Still, many recycling companies and charities such as Goodwill take old electronic products for free or for pennies on the dollar.

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Puckett argues that some recyclers can afford to do so because instead of adequately recycling the products in the U.S., they sell items wholesale to other recycling companies. They in turn export products to junkyards in developing countries, where regulations are lax, and electronics are broken down without regard to the environment or the health impacts on laborers.

“There is a chain of companies these products are going through, on their way from the consumer to the recycling center to actually being exported,” Puckett said. “These companies know export is bad. It is usually illegal to do in most cases, and it’s not sustainable. Just because you are on the chain doesn’t mean you are culpable, but doing due diligence is the responsibility of a responsible company.”

BAN was founded to keep developed countries from dumping hazardous waste, e-waste, and other toxic materials on developing countries. A 1989 United Nations treaty, the Basel Convention, bans the international export of hazardous wastes. More than 183 countries signed the treaty but not the United States.

Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the industry to develop a set of “best management practices” that recyclers and electronics manufacturers can follow, and it oversaw the creation of a certification program in 2008 called R2.

The R2 standard is administered by nonprofit group Sustainable Electronics Recycling International and allows for certain products deemed valuable and “refurbishable” to be exported from the U.S. to developing countries.

According to John Lingelbach, executive director of SERI, that distinction allows for developing nations to obtain electronic equipment that would be too expensive for its citizens to purchase, such as old iPhones or used laptops.

“We’re trying to balance the need to stop the export of hazardous waste with the strong desire, the strong sense, that it is a good thing to allow reusable equipment to go to places where it will get reused by other people who might not have access to electronic equipment,” Lingelbach said.

“BAN’s approach to stopping exports of hazardous waste is to ban all exports outright, no matter if the electronics will get recycled, reused, or refurbished elsewhere,” Lingelbach added. “We believe there are items that could be reused elsewhere, and have value elsewhere, that don’t need to just be recycled for parts here.”

Puckett said BAN’s more stringent certification program, called e-Stewards, keeps e-recycling companies from claiming scrap items are “refurbishable,” a loophole that could allow for exporting anything and everything to developing nations’ junkyards.

Still, tracking devices placed on items sent to a Washington-based e-Steward-certified recycling center called Total Reclaim wound up in Hong Kong.

“We ended up having to suspend them from the program, and the state of Washington ended up fining them $440,000,” Puckett said. “Nobody was amused. They handled recycling for companies like Boeing and state government offices. It was shocking because everyone thought they were one of the most sustainable companies.”

Total Reclaim said in a statement that it disputes the penalty but is “fully cooperating with the agency throughout the process and stopped exporting these materials” before the investigation began.

Lingelbach said the 205 GPS trackers BAN placed on three types of electronic equipment was not adequate to generate statistically significant data about how much e-waste is being exported.

“I think there are questions on the reports’ methodology and the accuracy of those GPS trackers,” Lingelbach said. “But what we really need to focus on is making sure that these private vendors that multinational corporations use for e-recycling are actually recycling. Whether the percentage exported is 40 percent or 4 percent, we need to improve our ability to uncover fraud in the market.”

Lingelbach said SERI is looking at conducting more spot audits of R2-certified e-recycling companies. Puckett, on the other hand, believes the real solution is for an outright federal ban on the export of all used electronic goods.

Joe Clayton, a 13-year veteran of the e-recycling business, hopes the report doesn’t sully the reputation of all recyclers.

“I don’t know how, but recyclers are getting a bad name,” said Clayton, who owned a recycling company for 10 years and has spent the past three as a vice president of sales at Metal Recycling and Processing in Maryland. “Back when no one recycled, we were saints. But now that everyone recycles, we’re sinners.”

He has worked with companies that have been R2 certified and e-Stewards certified. Clayton said he understands the desire by BAN to keep exports of e-waste illegal but also believes in allowing the flow of tested, working used equipment to developing countries.

“We want people to be innovative with their repairs and recycling of electronics,” he said.

“The entire industry has changed from what used to be a cowboy mentality to hundreds of companies now certified,” Clayton added. “We need to make sure we’re enforcing those rules better, but we’re much better off than we were.”