Activists Push for Safer E-Recycling
Listen to Allison Aubrey's report.
Used U.S. Electronics Create Toxic Dumping in Asia's Villages
View a photo gallery of a Chinese village that's become a dumping ground for electronics waste.
Millions of pounds of used electronics are shipped to countries like China and India, where workers strip them by hand of their metal and plastic. A woman sorts wire in Guiya, China.
Photo: Basel Action Network
April 6, 2002 -- Americans will throw out about 10 million old computers this year. About two-thirds of these will be shipped to Asia for dismantling by rural villagers. The computers all contain mercury and lead, and the resulting toxic waste has become a threat to villagers' health and environment.
A coalition of activists and lawmakers has been working to improve the situation, and in recent weeks they've gotten a signed pledge from electronic manufacturers in the United States to consider a new solution. For Weekend All Things Considered, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
A few months ago, environmental activist Jim Puckett traveled to China to check out reports of massive dumps of electronic waste. About four hours northeast of Hong Kong, Puckett and his team came across villages along the Lianjiang River where families were burning piles of plastic computer wires in order to recover the valuable metals inside.
A town stream is China nearly choked with e-waste.
Photo: Basel Action Network
"All they did was burn the wires by night, sort them by day," Puckett says. "The whole village was covered in this ashen residue, with the children playing in this very toxic ash."
The ash is made up of residues from melted plastics and heavy metals. Burning the wires also sends dioxin and other toxic gases into the air.
About 50 percent of the electronics waste sent into these areas is discarded. Each dumped computer contains about four pounds of lead and much of this leaches into the ground and water supply. Puckett's team found lead levels in the river to be 190 times higher than levels considered acceptable by the World Health Organization. Villagers report stomach and breathing problems, and have to ship in their drinking water because they say their water is no good.
Most of the waste ends up in China, because salvage operators there charge much less than domestic recyclers. Lauren Roman, vice president of the U.S. company United Recycling, says that agencies with old computers to unload, such as corporations, government offices, or municipalities that collect old PCs from residents, typically are concerned about getting rid of the old equipment as cheaply as possible.
"If they call a broker that's shipping their material to a port so that it can all be exported to China and other countries for recycling, they usually have to pay little if anything to get rid of their electronics," she says.
In contrast, Roman's company recycles computers at their facility in New Jersey. Trained workers carefully separate out the toxic components. For instance, they remove -- intact -- the monitor tubes that contain most of the computers' lead. The tubes are then sold back to manufacturers.
This kind of recycling is becoming mandatory in Europe. Unlike the United States, the European Union has banned the export of its computer waste, as have Japan, Canada and Australia. In fact, they've all signed on to an international treaty aimed at protecting developing countries from harmful waste. Activists have been nudging computer manufacturers to take similar steps in the United States, such as including the cost of responsible recycling in a computer's purchasing price.
Electronic manufacturers have resisted the idea -- calling it bad for business. But according to activist groups like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in the last 18 months the industry has changed its tune.
Faced by recent decisions by many states to mandate proper recycling, manufacturers have agreed to explore the idea of building a recycling fee in the cost of a computer. There's still much to consider, like how much the fee would be and who would pay it. The latest estimate is that it would take about $25 per computer to ensure that the nation's electronic waste doesn't end up in a dump in China.
Browse for other NPR stories about toxic waste.
Read the Basel Convention.
Read the Basel Action Network's report on cyber recycling in Asia.
Read about Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's clean computer campaign.
Find out more about toxic trade and toxic hotspots at Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Web site.
Leaden cathode ray tubes are some of the most toxic parts in a computer. Find out how they work.