Firms starting to stem wave of toxic tech junk
Monday, March 05, 2007
Along Guiyu's narrow streets, high-tech junk — some of it illegally
imported from the United States — is piled into towering mounds.
Nearby, workers break apart computers to strip out computer chips. They dip the pieces into acid baths to remove metals, including gold and lead, that can be resold.
Often the toxic remains are dumped in local rivers or burned, increasing health and environmental problems, locals and experts say. Several studies have found that workers and residents suffer from maladies that include cancer and respiratory diseases. A recent government report found that more than 80 percent of the children in this city of 133,000 have lead poisoning.
Health care activists and environmentalists have publicized the negative impact of electronic waste, raising the pressure on companies to stem the flow. Now change is starting.
In December, Dell became the first computer company to offer free recycling to individual customers worldwide and, for a $25 service fee per computer, to institutional and corporate clients in most major markets.
Two years ago, Dell pledged to remove all brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, chemicals that have been linked to neurological problems and cancer, from products by 2009.
"If we produced it, we feel that we should have a responsible recycling solution," said Eric Gates, Dell's worldwide manager of asset recovery services. "Since our customers are around the globe, we've got to have a global solution."
Gates said the new Dell commitments were a company response to "some outside pressures" and came about "because our customers were demanding it."
Hewlett-Packard Co. took a similar approach when it held a series of events in seven states last summer to raise awareness about the importance of recycling electronic waste.
Globally, 20 million to 50 million tons of electronic devices are disposed of annually, said Beijing-based Greenpeace toxics campaigner Jamie Choi.
Dealing with the trash has created an environmental nightmare. Computers contain hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals, including lead, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and mercury, that can leach into water supplies or, if burned, create toxic fumes.
A 2004 report by the Computer Take Back Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups, found that consumer electronics constitute 40 percent of lead and about 70 percent of the heavy metals found in landfills.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated 2.6 million tons of electronic waste in 2005, the latest available data, 7.9 percent more than the year before. Of that amount, only 12.5 percent was recycled, according to the agency.
Much more electronic waste is stored in basements and attics, said Robin Schneider, executive director of Austin-based Texas Campaign for the Environment.
"It's so common that people have home electronic waste in their households that they don't know what to do with," she said.
Companies are also stepping up recycling programs in response to growing concerns that data on old electronic devices may be stolen if people throw them away. For the $25 fee that it charges institutional clients, Dell provides several services, including deleting all data from hard drives.
"People are realizing that for both environmental and data-security reasons, they need to be more responsible with their old computers," Schneider said.
An e-waste case study
Guiyu provides a case study for the problems of letting the market determine the fate of electronic waste.
Last year, the town processed 1.5 million tons of e-waste, making it the largest electronic waste recycler in China, said Mayor Chen Xishi. The growing trade accounts for 90 percent of the local economy, he said.
Although China bans the import of electronic waste, "the laws are not well-enforced," Choi said, adding that brokers sometimes tape $100 bills to incoming containers of waste to bribe customs officials.
A Chinese government report released last year found that 70 percent of globally traded electronic waste entered China.
Environmental activists say the United States is partially responsible for the damage because it is the world's only developed nation that has not ratified the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty created in 1989 that bans the export of electronic and other hazardous waste to developing countries.
"The U.S. is not monitoring or controlling its exports (of electronic waste), so you have recyclers and businesses in the United States who are free to load up containers of toxic materials . . . with no monitoring of where it goes or what is done with it," said Sarah Westervelt, a researcher for Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization trying to stop international trade in toxic wastes.
The impact of the trade on Guiyu's environment and its residents' health has been easier to gauge. Although Guiyu's economy has relied on recycling since the 1960s, the environmental effects of the pollution have become more visible in recent years, locals and experts say.
More than 5,000 small companies process electronic waste, and many workers dump toxic byproducts into rivers. A 2005 study by Greenpeace found that levels of copper, lead, tin, nickel and cadmium in "discharge channels" funneling into a local river were "between 400 and 600 times higher than would be expected for uncontaminated river sediments."
The pollution has led to serious health problems. Tests show that residents had abnormally high concentrations of cadmium in their blood, said Huo Xia, a professor of medicine at Shantou University.
Because of lead poisoning, "children who grow up in Guiyu are likely to suffer lower cognitive abilities and a lack of concentration," Huo said.
Workers in Guiyu often handle disassembled electronic devices without protective clothing and are likely to suffer high rates of cancer and respiratory disease, she said.
Dell's decisions to offer global recycling and reduce the amount of toxic materials in their products offers a model for how computer manufacturers can stem the damage, environmental groups say.
While other companies — including H-P and Apple Inc. — offer various levels of recycling in the United States, "we want companies to stop practicing double standards and offer the same types of services to clients in developing countries," Choi said.
Dell sold more than 39 million computers in 2006, 17 percent of global computer sales, according to research firm IDC. The company says its goal is to increase the 80 million pounds of PCs, monitors, printers and other materials that it recycled in 2005 to 275 million pounds during the next three years.
H-P, meanwhile, says it expects to increase its recyclables from 164 million pounds (equivalent to the weight of more than 600 jumbo jets) last year to more than 1 billion pounds this year.
Despite the progress, environmental groups caution that holding technology companies accountable is difficult.
The Basel Action Network estimates that 60 to 80 percent of the electronic waste marked for recycling in the United States is actually exported, Westervelt said.
Some recyclers "are shipping e-waste to the highest bidder anywhere around the world with no controls over what happens to the hazardous material downstream," she said.
She said that because Dell has so far refused to state publicly what companies it uses for recycling, "we really need to see more transparency."
Dell recycling director Gates said that as a company rule, Dell does not disclose the names of its vendors. He said the company employs Environmental Resources Management, an unaffiliated environmental consulting firm, to monitor recycling worldwide. Gates also said no products collected for recycling are exported from the U.S.
In China, Dell declined a request to visit a recycling facility.
"Less than 1 to 2 percent" of recycled products "end up in landfills," Gates said. "We need to make sure nothing hurts the environment."
What's in it?
These chemicals are commonly used in electronic devices and are harmful to human health.
Lead: Used in computer monitors, batteries and soldering.
Cadmium: Used in rechargeable laptop batteries and older monitors.
Mercury: Used in flat-screen monitors and older kinds of batteries.
Beryllium: Used in springs, connectors and older motherboards.
Phthalates: Used to soften plastics.
Brominated flame retardants: Used to prevent fires in circuit boards and plastic covers.
PVC plastics: Used mainly to insulate wires and cables.