Where's most of that toxic e-waste going? Overseas

Sacramento BeeNovember 28, 2010 

In the soft morning light, the silver-gray mountain of electronic trash did not look especially hazardous. But it was.

Inside that massive rubble of technology, with its V-shaped canyons of printers and keyboards and its fin-like ridges of fax machines and coffee makers, was enough toxic material — including lead, cadmium and brominated flame retardants — to poison California watersheds for centuries and sow disease in humans.

"This is the problem," said Jim Taggart, president of ECS Refining in Santa Clara, where the e-waste was waiting to be safely recycled. "This is the material that most people are exporting. They'll get paid 5 to 10 cents a pound for shoving it in a container and shipping it overseas."

Five years after California launched an ambitious effort to control pollution from electronic waste, much of our e-waste is being shipped overseas, where it is contributing to a legacy of pollution and disease that would not be tolerated in this state, a Bee investigation has found.

Domestically, California's program is doing just what officials intended: It has outlawed e-waste from landfills and jump-started a multimillion-dollar state industry to recycle televisions, computer monitors and other video display devices, paid for with public money.

But there is a blind spot: The program provides no money for anything else, meaning large volumes of low-value, hazardous electronic waste that are difficult to recycle at a profit in California are instead being exported, a consequence the state did not anticipate. Much of it is flowing to developing nations where it is picked apart by workers exposed to a high-tech cocktail of contamination.

"Most people just don't know what's happening to their material when it's dropped off," said Taggart, one of the state's leading e-waste recyclers. "If they knew, they wouldn't be dropping it off."

Nearly all TVs and monitors are recycled — at least initially — in California. That is not true for the towering mountains of other electronic products sold in the state.

State records do not clearly reflect how much is exported, but industry officials put the number at 160 million to 210 million pounds a year. That is enough to fill more than 4,500 shipping containers which, placed end to end, would form a convoy about 35 miles long.

Little information about those exports reaches the public, though. Instead, Californians who donate electronics generally believe they are doing the right thing for the environment. And most do so amid a blizzard of eco-friendly claims from recyclers who in some cases have exported e-waste themselves.

"There is not an e-waste recycler out there who doesn't try to look as green as possible," said Janice Oldemeyer, president of Onsite Electronics Recycling in Stockton and a recognized industry leader. "Yet the reality is most of them aren't."

Read more of this story at SacBee.com

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service