Showing posts with label BAN. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BAN. Show all posts

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Dirty Truth About (Some) E-Waste Collections

A new report just published by the Basel Action Network and the Electronics Takeback Coalition is highlighting the many issues and pitfalls around how the United States deals with electronic waste.

The report concerns an Oklahoma-based e-waste recycler, a series of free public e-waste collection drives in western Pennsylvania, and the sticky morass that is U.S. e-waste export rules.

A little background: BAN and Electronics Takeback have long been advocating for responsible e-waste policies in the U.S. Because this country is the only developed nation that hasn't yet ratified the Basel Convention on toxic wastes, the U.S. is able to import and export all types of hazardous materials, with the sole exception being for cathode-ray tube televisions and monitors, provided that proper notice is given to the EPA.
Click for full-sized.

Electronic waste is a huge problem, containing both a large number of highly toxic materials and hard-to-recycle compounds; but there are valuable materials in electronics that can be harvested and potentially reused or sold on the commodities market. An expose by the television news program 60 Minutes last year explored how toxic e-waste harvesting can be. Given the choice between landfilling millions of pounds of electronics containing lead, mercury and other toxins, and collecting it for supposedly eco-friendly recycling, it's not a difficult decision to make.

But the report from BAN looks at how e-waste collection projects, no matter how green they're promised to be, can end up being part of the problem.

As part of their preparation for Earth Day, BAN looked around the country for free e-waste collection drives. Free collection drives fall into a simple rule of thumb, according to Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics Takeback Coalition: follow the money.

"If you have someone who is going to take all your stuff, including TVs, for free, then stop right there: they're going to be exporting," Kyle explained.

What BAN found was less common, and raised more red flags, than just a free drive: an Oklahoma-based e-waste company called Earth ECycle was holding a collection drive in western Pennsylvania as a benefit for the Humane Society in the region.

"If you've got a recycler who's taking this for free, and paying a charity for it, then there's only one way to generate revenue from taking stuff from people's basement and garages," Sarah Westervelt, BAN's e-Stewardship Director, told me, "that's to export it."

Lee Nesler, the executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, told me that the events in the region netted over a million pounds of discarded electronics, and will earn the group about $150,000 in donations from Earth ECycle.

BAN staked out the collection drive, and followed the trucks that left the collections warehouses in Pittsburgh and Monroeville, Pa. From those warehouses, following some "offloading and reloading" of the trucks, per the BAN report, the containers went overseas. Most were shipped to Hong Kong with destinations beyond to Vietnam or elsewhere, and a final container was shipped to South Africa.
Click for full-sized.

The problem, in addition to concerns about exports of e-waste in violation of U.S. and international law, is that Earth ECycle pledges to keep all e-waste in the U.S. for processing. When BAN contacted Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department warning about incoming shipments of potentially illegal waste, the authorities there refused the containers and shipped them back to the U.S.

In an email interview, Earth ECycle's CEO, Jeffrey Nixon, explained that his company recalled the shipments, and what comes next for the containers. "When all of the containers come back, we will verify contents and seal to insure we are the ones responsible, take them back to a warehouse in NJ, sort, separate and resell the items to a well qualified buyer," Nixon wrote.

There are more wrinkles in this story than can reasonably be explained in a blog, but it's worth noting that neither of the warehouses that Earth ECycle sent the collected materials to contain recycling or dismantling equipment, that the materials did obviously end up being shipped overseas, contrary to the company's claims, and that Earth ECycle has an account on, an import-export website, where the company offers for sale container-loads of electronic scrap.

Nixon disputes the claims of the BAN report, and says that he will take responsibility to correct mistakes like the shipping of these electronics overseas. But regardless of the specifics of this case, it highlights a serious problem with U.S. e-waste policy.

According to Barbara Kyle, this kind of export is pretty standard in the industry. "When it comes to these public collection events where people can take their stuff in for free, and which are not paid for by state programs, this is a pretty common thing," she said. "Everyone thinks they're doing the right thing [by bringing their electronics in for recycling], but people have no idea that these are going on a container and going overseas."

And once these electronics have been collected, it's difficult to keep them from being imported, even among the 140 countries that are signatories to the Basel Convention. The report says that Hong Kong authorities can only inspect a few containers per day for contraband, and that about 50 containers per day of e-waste get past the inspections, destined for mainland China.

"There's no global police force enforcing the Basel Convention," Sarah Westervelt explained. "...These containers make it through their customs process, usually in violation of their laws, and they get opened up and 'recycled' using very toxic technologies. The end result is you've got these immortal heavy metals dispersed into their environment, impacting human health and the environment for the long term."

Groups like BAN and the Electronics Takeback Coalition have been working on both the policy and the action front. While federal e-waste legislation was introduced last week by Rep. Gene Green, Kyle and Westervelt both said that the proposed rule has been corrupted by loopholes that would allow the exporting of this type of waste.

But BAN has also been working on a market solution to the e-waste disposal problem in the U.S. Late last year, they launched E-Stewards, a certification that recognizes the most responsible e-waste handling practices around. After six years of developing the standard and the list of companies that meet E-Stewards criteria, BAN has nearly completed the process to make E-Stewards an independently audited certification. A pilot verification of the label will begin at the end of 2009, and the certification is expected to launch in February 2010.

In the meantime, individuals, businesses and non-profits like the Humane Society bear the bulk of the burden in sorting through the complexities of responsible e-waste disposal.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Basel Action Network

30 January 2007 (Seattle, WA.) – The Seattle based toxic trade watchdog, Basel Action Network (BAN), is concerned that Microsoft has done little to prevent or mitigate the massive hardware obsolescence that is likely to be caused by the release of its latest operating system known as Vista. The environmental organization predicts that the software launch will create a 'tsunami' of e-waste exported to developing countries already awash in e-waste exports, as consumers in rich countries dispose of their existing computers and buy new machines capable of running the new operating system.

BAN noted the contradiction of Microsoft founder Bill Gates latest high-tech progeny in light of the charitable mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "to bring innovations in health and learning to the global community."

"Today with the release of Vista, Microsoft could bring both a massive digital dump and a perpetuation of the digital divide to the global community," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network. "It is shameful how little innovation and concern the electronics industry continues to demonstrate for the long-term consequences of their products in light of their abilities to innovate front-end gadgetry to encourage sales." he said.

A study by the Softchoice Corporation[i] estimated that about half of the average business PCs in North America do not meet the minimum requirements for Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, and 94 percent do not meet the system requirements for Vista Premium -- the enhanced business version. While some of this obsolescence can be solved with RAM upgrades, it is likely that many businesses will not bother with such labor intensive servicing but will simply discard their existing computers.

According to BAN, more than 50% of these computers globally, are exported to developing countries either whole or dissassembled, where they are processed and disposed of in a manner that causes serious damage to workers and local environments. The result of this is that the gains of the electronics industry translate into serious environmental costs externalized to the poor. BAN earlier documented the cyber-age nightmares in such countries as China, India or Nigeria where women and children 'cook' lead-tin soldered circuit boards over small fires, soak chips in dangerous acid baths along river ways, smash lead and phosphor laden cathode ray tubes, and burn wires and plastic housings in open dumps.[ii]

Further, BAN notes that every time software makes hardware obsolete, the digital divide is actually perpetuated, because the divide is not defined by the gap between those with computers and those without, but by those with the latest innovations and those without. And when exported obsolete computers are handed down to developing country consumers for re-use, a toxic timebomb is created there due to the fact that the electronics industry has made no effort to ensure that infrastructure is in put in place to properly collect and manage their products at end-of-life.

"Most developing countries have no infrastructure whatsoever to collect and recycle computers, so when they die they are simply dumped and burned," Puckett said. "A truly responsible industry will take steps to ensure that innovation does not automatically equate to obsolescence, toxic waste and a growing population of hardware have-nots," he said.

BAN hopes to work with its Seattle area neighbor Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to ensure that innovation and obsolescence are de-linked in future.

HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles