The Afterlife of Garbage Do you know where your trash goes after the garbage truck picks it up? We talk about the hidden life of garbage and where old PCs go to die.
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The Afterlife of Garbage

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The Afterlife of Garbage

The Afterlife of Garbage

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

So you say you separate your glass and plastic, aluminum and paper, and you put it out for recycling. All right. We all do that. We have a blue bin in my neighborhood. Now maybe you think about how much garbage you'll generate when you buy something, and maybe you pick a product with less packaging. And when you're ready to buy a new computer, you might even, oh, recycle your old one instead of throwing it in with the regular garbage, if you can find a place to recycle it. According to my next guests, more people recycle than vote. Wow. We Americans still throw out an astounding amount of packaging and garbage: four and a half pounds per day, per person, and that adds up to 1,600 pounds of trash every year for each of us.

And so for the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking with a writer and a filmmaker who followed the trail of the trash we make. We'll find out where the garbage goes once the trucks cart it away from your curbside, and from landfill to incinerator to recycling center, we'll get the real dirt on our debris.

We'll also talk about and hear about where our junk PCs end up, even the ones we recycle. It's kind of surprising. You think you recycle a PC; maybe it's going to a school someplace or some community center. Well, a report out this week followed the trail of old PCs and other electronic equipment, and found out that this e-waste from the US and Europe is ending up in dumps in Africa and other developing countries, filling their landfills and leaching toxic chemicals into the environment.

The program is prerecorded so don't try to call in.

Heather Rogers produced and directed the 2002 documentary film "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage." She's a journalist and author of a book also entitled "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage." She's based in Brooklyn and she joins me today from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. HEATHER ROGERS (Producer, Director, Author, "Gone Tomorrow"): Good morning, Ira.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you.

Jim Puckett is a coordinator of the Basel Action Networks in Seattle, and this week BAN released a report documenting the export of old electronic equipment from the US and Europe to Nigeria. He joins us today from Florida.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Puckett.

Mr. JIM PUCKETT (Coordinator, Basel Action Network): Thank you.

FLATOW: Let's talk garbage. Take us on a tour of what happens once I put that stuff out on my curbside.

Ms. ROGERS: Well, what's so interesting about garbage is that everyone makes it every day, so everyone can relate to it. And yet, you know, it disappears or it seems to disappear. And I looked at this because I wanted to know; I knew it didn't actually disappear, and I wanted to know where it went. And what I found is that first it gets picked up by compactor trucks, and compactor trucks--it's important, because they compress the waste that you leave on your curbside. And what that means is that it reduces the ability to salvage materials, because they get crushed and broken. From there it takes--and the reason they have these trucks is that collection is the most expensive part of waste handling...

FLATOW: But...

Ms. ROGERS: ...and if they can condense as much material into one load...


Ms. ROGERS: ...they make it more efficient. So it gets picked up by compactor trucks, and it gets taken to what's called a transfer station. Now transfer stations have been around since collection started in the 19th century, and these are just, you know, strategically located lots where household waste is dumped and sorted, and the things that can be recycled are taken out. And the rest is put into trailer trucks and sent to either an incinerator or, most often, to a landfill.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We've seen garbage barges--remember that garbage barge that went all around the Atlantic looking for a place to go?

Ms. ROGERS: They can see--yeah.

FLATOW: Are they still doing that?

Ms. ROGERS: Well, there are barges that haul waste, and this is something that the Basel Action Network, I think, is rightly putting focus on. A lot of electronic wastes are barged out of the country, and a lot also--plastic wastes and other kinds of chemical wastes--are taken out of the country. And the reasons for this are numerous. In part, it's because most of--a lot of the garbage stream is now handled by corporations, and part of the way that they do business is that they need to look for cheap sources of labor, and it's often cheaper to recycle or process these wastes overseas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jim Puckett, you released an interesting study that looked at where electronic equipment ends up. Is this equipment that we're using in the US and Europe being recycled? You're saying it's ending up in other places.

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, it is. This magical place where we throw things, called `away,' really does exist and very often it does exist in developing countries. And what we've been looking at is the most commonly traded waste stream right now--that's the hazardous waste--that's moving from the rich to the poor countries, exploiting their situation, their cheap labor, but also transferring a real toxic legacy, and that's the high-tech industry. So the high-tech industry not only represents a technological revolution, but they're representing a frightening new environmental crisis, and that's because of a combination of a massive growth in this industry combined with rapid obsolescence, combined with toxicity. When you have those three things happening, you're going to have a crisis on your hands, and that's what we've got right now, mostly in the developed world but, because this waste is building up in mountains and piles of it and everybody wants to externalize those real environmental costs and let someone else deal with the problem, it's being exported.

FLATOW: Wait, wait, let me just see...

Mr. PUCKETT: And we have a situation...

FLATOW: Well, let me see if I understand this. If I send away my PC to where I think it's being recycled, it may be actually being--winding up in a land dump as a toxic waste someplace in a Third World country?

Mr. PUCKETT: That's absolutely right. We found in our first study we did in 2002 and looking at China and Asia that when somebody took their old computer to a recycler, there was a 50 to 80 percent chance that that would be not recycled here in the US, but quickly put on a container ship and shipped to China. And there they would be dealing with some of the most primitive, horrific recycling technologies you could imagine: cooking circuit boards over coal fires, like in a little wok. They were cooking the boards and pulling the chips off. They were burning the wires from the computers to extract the copper. And when you burn this type of material openly like that, you're going to create some of the most hazardous substances known. We saw them stripping the chips down to try to get some gold out of it, dumping the acids into the rivers--tremendous health problems and environmental legacy problems. The groundwater in that town and area in China was completely contaminated, so they had to truck in water from outside villages.

So it's extremely hazardous. People don't realize that a computer, when it's sitting on your desk, isn't going to harm you, but at end of life, because the manufacturers are still putting these hazardous substances in them, we have a serious problem. And this waste stream is just getting out of control.

FLATOW: And you've found it also happening in Africa.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. We just completed a study with a new pretext; this time it was all about reuse. In China we saw materials recovery taking place, but in a very horrific way. So when you hear the word `recycling,' don't always think it's going to be good recycling. And when you hear the word `reuse,' sometimes it's a lie. What we found in Lagos, Nigeria, when we went there is that 75 percent of what was being put into these containers was completely not usable, not repairable, not possible for them to resell it, so it went quickly to dump sites. And there, in Africa, they routinely light these ablaze. They set them on fire to reduce the volume. And there again you have the open burning problem. You also have the leachate into the groundwater, which is very close to the surface in Lagos. They have no infrastructure for dealing with this new techno trash waste stream.


Ms. ROGERS: And also, if I could jump in...


Ms. ROGERS: ...I just wanted to say that, you know, ironically, the more environmental controls we put on disposal sites here in the US, the harder it is to dispose of these wastes here, the more costly it is to dispose of them in our back yards. And so there's an incentive there to ship these wastes elsewhere.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROGERS: And, you know, you'd think that that wouldn't be the case, but actually, you know, what happens when you don't restrict the production of toxic materials--you still end up with people manufacturing those materials, and those wastes have to go somewhere. And they go to, you know, the sort of politically weakest...

Mr. PUCKETT: Exactly.

Ms. ROGERS: know, impoverished places.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. We call it--yeah. We call it the path of least resistance. And we talked earlier about the garbage barge. That was one of the big incidents that--that barge actually went all the way down the coast, the Eastern coast of the United States, to Caribbean countries. Because of their impoverished and desperate conditions down there, they thought they could tempt them with the waste with a little buy-off. And we have that problem globally. It was really surfaced in the late '80s and it spawned the treaty, the Basel Convention, which is the world's only waste treaty, and it has to do with stopping this economically motivated toxic dumping from rich to poor countries. And sadly, the United States still has not ratified that treaty, and moreover, they fight against the efforts to ban this type of export from rich to poor countries.

So we have a free-trade situation in this country. We're the only developed country in the world that has not ratified this treaty, does not control its hazardous waste exports, so we basically have a free-trade scenario. So clearly, whenever there's any kind of cost involved with disposal in this country, it's going to go to places where there's--those costs are much, much lower.

FLATOW: Heather, I didn't really realize, you know, we thought we--we went through this age of the '60s and '70s of recycling. How has that gone in the last 40 years?

Ms. ROGERS: Well, over that same period of time recycling has actually picked up into the early '90s and then has plateaued since then at a little under 30 percent, and there were great strides forward made in the late '80s to early '90s and before that as well. But what has also happened over that time is that in the last 30 years the amount of garbage that we've produced has doubled. So recycling isn't keeping pace with the amount of garbage output we've got.

FLATOW: Yeah. There was a time, I remember, we were trying to take the packaging out of little McDonald's things and stuff like that. Has that made good progress, or are we--or is that packaging all coming back now?

Ms. ROGERS: That packaging has changed forms. I mean, there was this struggle against the Styrofoam packaging that McDonald's was using...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROGERS: ...the `McToxics' campaign, which forced, you know, fast-food retailers to switch to different materials, but it doesn't--unfortunately, it hasn't reduced the amount of waste that we're getting. And we're still getting toxic waste because, increasingly, plastic is a large section of what packaging is comprised of. And packaging takes up 30 percent of all landfill space in the US...


Ms. ROGERS: it's a huge part of the garbage stream.

FLATOW: This program is recorded, so please don't try to call in.

Let's go to Brandon in Canton, Michigan. Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. I'm--this topic is kind of near and dear to me because I own a company that remanufactures toner cartridges for laser printers. And it's amazing--it's not only the hardware that is the issue; it's the consumable side, because more and more, these technology companies, like Lexmark, Dell, HP--they realize the real money is in the consumables, and so they push products that require consumables on a more frequent basis. And a lot of these toner cartridges and ink jets and all of these sorts of things can be redone and remanufactured and can print and, you know, serve a second life, as it were, and kept out of the landfills. And the most of these companies that end up having a recycle program where you can send your cartridges back to them--many a times these things end up in containers and then shipped over to China and dumped on the edge of the rivers.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's what Jim was talking about.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah, that's exactly right. We found massive quantities of toner cartridges over there, and the caller is correct to. There's very unscrupulous companies that take the obscene position that reuse of these cartridges is not what they want. They obviously want obsolescence. They want to sell as much as they can, and they actually make is impossible in many cases, they try their hardest to make it impossible to refill a cartridge. And this is really a perverse effect of our market economy. We have to find incentives to not consume so much. And so we've really got to start looking at that and whether the market incentives or legislation, this overconsumption has got to stop. Clearly one place to start with that obviously is packaging, but also any kind of replaceable cartridge or commodity has to be looked at.

FLATOW: We're talking about garbage this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You know, Leslie...

Ms. ROGERS: Can I...

FLATOW: Sure. Heather...

Ms. ROGERS: ...say something?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Ms. ROGERS: Just about the kind of incentives that are provided. I mean, Jim was talking about providing incentives for less wasting. And we absolutely need that. I mean, every day we see the government providing incentives for more wasting like this digital television legislation that's passed committee in the Senate and the House. This is, you know, a government push to switch from analog transmission of televisions to digital, and this is going to make obsolete, you know, millions of television sets...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ROGERS: ...which contain, you know, millions of pounds of lead and other toxic chemicals that are going to go to the dump.

FLATOW: So give us the plan on how to change this flow of this toxic stuff to the dump. Are you saying that maybe the new TVs could be less toxic, but what do we do with people throwing out the old stuff?

Ms. ROGERS: Well, how about not throwing out of the old stuff? How about greatest product durability and serviceability? How about promoting systems that actually stimulate local economies where you've got, you know, the kinds of jobs created where people can take their television sets to get repaired? You know, now it's cheaper to buy a new one than to get something fixed up, and you can't even fix, you know, a piece of electronics that's not functioning or broken. And you know, how about programs that create that and make that easier, and the arguments always made by industry that that's going to ruin the economy. It's going to destroy jobs. And you know, all the studies that have been done point to the fact that it will stimulate jobs on the local level and that it will create, you know, skilled, high-paying, you know, more secure jobs than now, you know, we've got in the last two years. Two million high-paid secure jobs have left the country replaced by half as many service-sector jobs. And so, you know, really, you know, the system that we have we're told is superior, but actually in reality, you know, a lot of Americans are struggling under the current economic system.

FLATOW: Is this something about our consumer culture? You know, the post-World War II mentality of consumer, consumer, consumer? (Unintelligible)...

Ms. ROGERS: Yeah, absolutely.


Ms. ROGERS: Absolutely. And really this idea of built-in obsolescence is something that really came about after World War II, and it's really--if you're going to talk about garbage you have to understand this idea because it's so central to the way that our economy works. You know, it needs ongoing waste to have, you know, increased and intensifying consumption.

Mr. PUCKETT: One of the ways of going about it is making the manufacturers more responsible for their equipment at end of life, so that they have extended responsibility. And you can do that in several different ways, and one of the ways is--they've done in Europe of course--is to say that you have to take it back. You actually have to physically take it back your electronic waste. You have to be responsible for somebody doing that. You have to pay the bill for that, so you would then have an incentive to make sure that that product at end of life is not going to cause you grief. It's not going to be toxic so you have to dispose of it, so it gives a little incentive to design them less toxic and less impactive. But we also need similar incentive to enhance product longevity, and some ideas that have been put out there is to start seeing everything as a service, so you're leasing from the company and therefore they would have an incentive, if you lease a computer, for example, that that machine lasts a long time. Right now the incentive is the reverse; they want it to die as soon as possible.

FLATOW: That's like the old telephones. You could do nothing to destroy those old phones. They lasted forever 'cause you leased it, you didn't buy it.

Ms. ROGERS: We're not...

Mr. PUCKETT: Because the company owned them, yes.

Ms. ROGERS: And a good example actually is from the 1920s when Ford was making the Model T. The initial ads for that car and for several years of its production said, `You ought never have to buy another one.'

FLATOW: There you go. All right. We've run out of time. Thank you very much, Heather Rogers, producer and director of the 2002 documentary film "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage." Also by the book of the same name. Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, BAN, in Seattle, Washington. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. ROGERS and Mr. PUCKETT: (In unison) Thank you.

FLATOW: If you'd like to write us, please send your letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 55 West 45th Street, Fourth Floor, New York, New York 10036.


FLATOW: If you missed anything, surf over to our Web site at SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection is up there. Also you can podcast SCIENCE FRIDAY and take it--old--podcast what you might have missed on this program with you.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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