Toxic Trade News / 31 May 2009
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Few Rules for Recycling Electronics
by Tom Zeller Jr., The New York Times
  A worker processes electronic trash in Guiyu, China.

© Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press
31 May 2009 (New York) – Jeffrey L. Nixon, the owner of an electronics-recycling company called EarthECycle, says he has been unfairly painted as a purveyor of electronic waste to developing nations already choking on the rich world’s discarded — and toxic — gadgetry.

Among other sorts of equipment reclamation, Mr. Nixon’s company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, offers an attractive fund-raising opportunity for charities. In return for the charities’ sponsoring and orchestrating of electronics recycling events in their local communities, during which consumers can drop off their old computers, keyboards, printers and the like, EarthECycle not only hauls away the equipment, it promises to pay cash — often in the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how much equipment is collected — to the charitable organizers.

He can do this, Mr. Nixon said, because he is able to resell the equipment — for reuse, repair or recycling of parts — on a bustling global market.

“Everybody wins all around,” Mr. Nixon told me in a phone call Friday.

Not everyone agrees. In a scathing report published early last week, the Basel Action Network, or BAN, an advocacy group based in Seattle that seeks to curb the exporting of electronic waste from the United States, argued that EarthECycle — and companies like it — falsely represent themselves as recyclers.

“The public all along is led to thinking they are doing a good deed, and that their old equipment is getting recycled,” the BAN report stated.

“The reality,” the report continued, “is that this is a scam.”

Whether or not that’s true is an open question. BAN activists did quietly monitor two recent EarthECycle collection events in Western Pennsylvania, sponsored by two local humane societies. The group reported having observed computer equipment being hauled first to two warehouses and, some days later, having been loaded into seven oceangoing containers.

Those were later determined to be headed for ports in China and South Africa.

But the details — and the legality of it all — get tangled after that. Mr. Nixon emphatically denies doing anything wrong, insisting that he carefully scrutinizes buyers to make sure they are licensed and reputable. He also argues that groups like BAN are trying to corner the recycling market for their own network of accredited vendors.

Activists at BAN say that last charge is ludicrous and argue that Mr. Nixon’s company falsely portrays itself as a recycler, when in reality it simply passes the unexamined material downstream to the highest bidder.

Proper processing of discarded electronic equipment, they add — which can contain any number of toxic materials — could not be achieved within a business model that not only hauls away discarded electronics free but also pays organizations for the privilege.

BAN also suggests that Mr. Nixon’s shipments might have run afoul of local and international guidelines binding the recipient nations, as well as rules, adopted two years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governing the international movement of cathode-ray tubes — found in many old monitors and television sets.

China, the group noted, turned back Mr. Nixon’s shipments when notified that they were on their way.

For his part, Mr. Nixon says that he is squared away with the E.P.A. and that he recalled the China shipments himself upon learning independently that his buyer might not be as reputable as he had thought.

He also said he wished BAN had approached him to discuss its concerns before issuing its report.

“If somebody is outright grossly negligent, then you pull their pants down, bend them over and give them a spanking,” Mr. Nixon said. “But you don’t bring them out to the firing line for what might be only a potential offense.”

Whatever its specifics, the case is emblematic of a larger and oft-lamented truth attending the endless tide of consumer electronics coursing through the American waste stream — and one that works in favor, at least for the moment, of American brokers like Mr. Nixon: There really are precious few rules to break.

As noted in a report from the Government Accountability Office for the House Foreign Affairs Committee last August, the United States remains notoriously lax in its regulation of electronics waste and the business of shipping it overseas. “U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics,” the report concluded.

Indeed, in what has become a well-documented problem, the stuff often ends up in developing countries where labor is cheap, and eager, underground economies subsist on harvesting whatever might be of value from the snarl of plastic, glass and metal.

Over the past several years, numerous documentary films and news reports have described the toxic ecosystems that develop as a result, where acrid plumes of smoke rise from circuit-board smelting pits, and children bustle amid a soup of dioxins and mercury leaking from mountains of smoldering electronic trash.

The Basel Convention, an international treaty drawn up in the late 1980s at the dawn of the e-waste boom and ultimately ratified by 169 nations, was designed to curb the international trade in electronics waste. A later amendment — signed by considerably fewer nations — restricted the movement of hazardous electronics waste from rich countries to poor ones.

Several countries — including those in the European Union — have incorporated the tenets of the Basel Convention and its amendment into national law.

The United States, along with Haiti and Afghanistan, have thus far not ratified the Basel Convention.

“The ultimate solution would be to pass a really good federal bill that would require that all recyclers in the U.S. meet very high standards,” said Sarah Westervelt, the e-waste project coordinator at BAN, “and that the U.S. ratify the Basel Convention and its amendment.”

A federal e-waste bill, in fact, was put forward in Congress in May, but environmental advocates have lambasted an exception in the draft for equipment being shipped for “repair or refurbishment.” Such a loophole, they say, gives the green light to brokers like Mr. Nixon and creates a legal foundation for the very sort of murky, difficult-to-follow trafficking that feeds toxic slums in developing nations.

“This is now an industry-supported bill, but not one that has any support from the environmental community,” said Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an advocacy group based in San Francisco that promotes environmentally conscious design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. “It will not actually stop the kinds of exports that need to be stopped,” Ms. Kyle said. “It will simply relabel them as exports for refurbishment.”

In the absence of legislation, some electronics makers are formalizing restrictions of their own. Last month, Dell, the computer giant, won accolades from environmental advocates for formally banning the exporting of nonfunctioning equipment collected by its recycling programs.

Still, Dell’s pledge notwithstanding, the American e-waste export market remains largely open for business — and as far as Mr. Nixon is concerned, that is a good thing.

He said he supports the spirit of groups like BAN and the Basel Convention but that in their specifics, they throttle a lucrative market that brings work and useful electronics to people that might not otherwise have access.

The solution, he says, is to monitor more closely foreign companies that purchase and move the equipment downstream, to ensure that it is being handled properly. “We should maintain our moral and legal prowess,” Mr. Nixon said, “but we shouldn’t limit our ability to do world trade.”

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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Select images courtesy of Chris Jordan