After Dump, What Happens To Electronic Waste? Even recycling your old TVs and computers doesn't mean you're doing the right thing -- trashing certain items may mean major health and environmental problems. Jim Puckett of the Basal Action Network talks about the best ways to ensure your electronics are being recycled correctly.

After Dump, What Happens To Electronic Waste?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

So maybe for Christmas, you'll be lucky enough to get a new computer or a TV, or something smaller like an MP3 player, and you'll be getting rid of your old one. Do you know that most computers, old TVs and little electronic devices have toxins inside? That's a problem if they end up in a landfill.

But when you try to recycle them, they may end up in a dumping ground in China, Ghana, India or another developing country, where poor people eke out a living by smashing and burning the technology to extract the valuable metals inside. The toxins poison the people scavenging for metal and pollute the water and air, creating a nightmarish landscape.

Not many people are aware of this, but obviously the writers of the animated series "Futurama" are. Here's a scene in which a spaceship of old computers and other electronic waste has just landed in the third world of the Antares System.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Futurama")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): We burn your e-waste down to the usable metals, safely releasing the toxins into our air and drinking water.

Ms. KATEY SAGAL (Actor): (As Turanga Leela) Ah! That's the worst thing I've ever seen.

Unidentified Man #1: Really? Then don't look over there.

(Soundbite of children squealing)

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, kids. Let's play find the shiny.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

Ms. SAGAL: (As Turanga Leela) That's even more horrific. Is all the work done by children?

Unidentified Man #1: No, not the whipping.

(Soundbite of whip cracking)

GROSS: As we're about to hear, that satirical scene from "Futurama" has a lot of grim truth to it. For instance, in an infamous e-waste dump in Ghana, it's largely orphans who scavenge for valuable metals.

My guest, Jim Puckett, is the executive director of the group BAN, which monitors the trade of e-waste, opposes the export of toxics from rich to poor countries and promotes sustainable solutions. BAN stands for the Basel Acton Network. Basel refers to the Basel Convention, an international treaty with the goal of reducing the shipments of toxic waste from developed to developing countries.

Jim Puckett, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what's wrong with me putting my old computer or cell phone or other electronic device in a dumpster?

Mr. JIM PUCKETT (Executive Director, Basel Acton Network): It's a very good question, and a lot of people don't know the answer. But in a short sentence: Electronic waste is hazardous waste, and dumpsters go someplace.

And when you put toxic waste in a landfill, whether it be a municipal landfill or one far away in a foreign country that's less formal, you're going to be putting those toxins right into the environment.

So you don't want to do that. And the dirty little secret is that when you do what you think is the right thing, and you take it to a recycler instead of throw it in your trash can, the sad thing is that about 80 percent of that material very quickly finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, where very dirty things happen to it.

That's what we discovered some years ago, and we've been trying to rectify this ever since.

GROSS: OK, let me back up a step. Why is an iPod or a computer or a cell phone hazardous? Like, what's in it that's problematic? It would be so easy to throw a little handheld device down your trash chute or put it in the big Hefty bag and leave it on the side of the street. I mean, what's the problem? What's in it?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah, wouldn't that be nice? But yeah, it's not just a nuisance waste. It's a hazardous waste. And what makes it so are toxic metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, also brominated flame retardants that are used in the circuit boards and in the plastics that house the equipment.

So those are compounds which are very persistent in the environment. Many are being banned and phased out. But they're put into plastics to keep them from igniting.

Other hazardous things include halogenated hydrocarbons other than brominated flame retardants, like PVC and CFCs. And then there's another category of rare-earth metals, some of which are toxic, which are also in these devices.

The ultimate solution, of course, one of the ultimate solutions is to get the toxics out of this equipment, and not only do we want to urge consumers to think about what to do at the end of life of this equipment, how to get rid of it, but also when they buy it.

There's more and more tools to use now for consumers to make sure they're rewarding the companies that get the toxics out of the equipment the quickest.

GROSS: How come these toxins aren't a problem when they're in my home, but they're a problem if I throw them out?

Mr. PUCKETT: The life cycle of electronics, the dirtiest aspects, unfortunately, take place nowadays in developing countries. So the production and also the extraction of the minerals, et cetera, the actual making of the chips and the wafers is a very dirty process. A lot of people are getting cancer in those factories.

When it comes as a product, finally, and sits in our laps or on our desks, very little externalities are coming out of it, very little pollution, just a little bit of off-gassing of BFRs, things like that, which we might breathe.

But then again, at the end of the life cycle, at the end of its term of duty, we go to get rid of it, and it goes into very dangerous disposal or recycling operations, which release those toxins again.

GROSS: Now, China is the number one destination for electronic waste, e-waste, from America. We'll talk about why a little bit later. But you visited the big dump in Guiyu, in southern China. Would you describe what's dumped there and what this huge dump looks like?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. Guiyu is still really ground zero for this massive global dumping that goes on from the rich to the poorer countries of electronic waste.

And we first went there in 2001, and I can't say I discovered because it was known only to some Chinese journalists at that time. And we heard that a lot of the electronics from North America - anecdotally, we just heard stories and stories of the stuff being exported. But nobody had ever bothered to go look, from the West, to see what was really going on there.

And we did that in December of 2001. And what we saw there was really a cyber-age nightmare. They were using Stone Age or Bronze Age technologies on 21st-century technology. Very toxic materials were being cooked, and acids were being used to strip the precious metals out of it, the acids being handled by the workers and dumped in very dangerous ways.

It's the only part of the world where you'll go and see thousands of women, on any given day, as you drive around this township area, that are sitting at what I could call a shallow wok. They're basically cooking printed circuit boards. These are the cards and motherboards that make a computer work.

Printed circuit boards are being cooked by the thousands, mostly by women, and as a result, they're breathing all of the brominated flame retardants and the lead and tin solders that are being heated up, and they're doing that so they pluck off the chips, which then will go either to be refurbished and sold as new - which is really another issue, because they're not new. Or they will go to the acid-stripping operations, where they, in a very inefficient way, are trying to get the gold and the silver out of them.

And so you just see some very dangerous technologies. You smell it in the air. You get headaches as soon as you enter this area. And it really is quite sad.

There are also whole villages that do nothing but melt the plastics. And that's another very dangerous operation because they have no protective respiratory equipment, and they're breathing in the fumes from melted plastics day in and day out.

GROSS: How is the acid used in the acid baths?

Mr. PUCKETT: The acid concoction is known as aqua regia. It's a very ancient formula of two acids that are mixed together. And when you do that, it dissolves the gold, and then you use a precipitate to bring that gold back.

And so you'll see these huge vats of - plastic vats, often, or ceramic -of acids. And no doubt, they're always located right along a river, so they flush that material, which not only includes the acids, but includes all the residues that are coming out of the chips and the circuit boards that have been dissolved. And it all gets flushed into the rivers.

And the rivers there have extremely high levels of lead, cadmium, et cetera, in them due to this process. The groundwater itself in Guiyu has been completely shot. They haven't had clean groundwater for about 15 years. And consequently, when I was there the first time, they were trucking in water. But now, today, since I've been back in 2009, they had a pipeline that was coming from about 40 kilometers away. It was the closest freshwater supply.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett, and he's the founder of the group the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste.

Jim, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. PUCKETT: Sure.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett. He's the founder of the group the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste, the waste from your computers and cell phones and all kinds of electronic devices. And this is toxic waste that often ends up in dumps in China and Ghana and developing countries around the world.

Now, you also visited an e-waste site in Ghana. How did that compare to what you saw in China?

Mr. PUCKETT: It's a little different, in that much of what takes place in West Africa is primarily to put things on the market. So they're trying to resell things as a first choice.

And the problem is that they've saturated the market, even in Ghana, for things like old cathode ray tubes, you know, the old computer monitors and televisions. Even working equipment in Ghana, to this day, coming on containers by the hundreds into the port of Tema in Accra, they're not able to be sold, even when they're working.

And so little boys go out and bring these carts in every day from the town, and they bring this equipment in that doesn't sell, and they smash it and they burn it.

And the saddest thing about Ghana is that it's mostly children doing the work. These are children that have run away, have been disenfranchised, don't have homes, don't have parents. They congregate in this dump area known as Aglaboshi(ph), and there's a market there, too, which is the food market for most of Accra.

But there's just burning fields and children doing the work, breathing all those toxic fumes, the dioxins, the furans, the toxic metals, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And at the same time, all that cloud is wafting over the food market.

So it's a general disaster area, and it used to be a beautiful wetland. It used to be a beautiful swampland, but no longer. It's now the site of slums, the site of this final resting place of our electronic discards.

GROSS: What does it look like? Does it look like a graveyard of old computers?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, nobody's burying them. They're just lying there in the open for you to see. So you see a lot of scorched equipment that has been burned.

And the burning is primarily to liberate the metal so they can get a little bit of money selling the copper. And then the children are scratching around in these burned piles to get the copper, the aluminum, the steel. They're dragging magnets around to try to pick up the last little bits of metal.

It really is, you know, the saddest end of the pipeline of some of our most iconic pieces of, you know, the pinnacle of our technology, basically, reduced to this, where we have children being poisoned to deal with this material, everybody in the West turning a blind eye to it, the manufacturers of the electronics turning a blind eye to it. It's quite shocking and quite sad.

GROSS: So do the children sell the copper and other materials that they're scavenging from the old computers?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. There are brokers, most of them from China or from India, that go through West Africa and buy up this material, buy up the copper scrap, the wires that have been scorched to remove the insulation. They will buy all that up and ship it out.

And there's a very robust market right now for metals. And so that is the recycling that takes place. Unfortunately, it takes place in the dirtiest of conditions, and it's poisoning not only the children and the workers, but the environment there in Ghana.

And this is just another spot on the planet. There are many others where similar things are taking place.

GROSS: Apparently, some of the computers in this dump in Ghana still have the stickers from the institutions or businesses that they once belonged to and stickers from the school district of Philadelphia, the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA. Their tags are found on computers and devices by a journalist from Ghana who was reporting on this dump.


GROSS: So what are the implications of that?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. When I was there, I met Michael Ananay(ph), and he's the independent journalist that has been trying to wake people up to the situation in Ghana. And he has a whole museum of what we call asset tags.

So institutions and schools and colleges and banks put their tag on their computers, and nobody bothers to take those off. So you can very well find out who was the originator of this waste, who created it, who sent it off on a direction to this place called away. And you can trace that back.

And it is shocking to see where it's all coming from. It's primarily Europe and North America. And all too often, we'll find government agencies, schools, because they're trying to do the cheapest thing possible.

So they're trying to save the taxpayers some money by giving it to a broker or a recycler who is not going to charge for it, or is going to take it very inexpensively. And what that almost always means when somebody takes something for free is that it's going to be exported. It's the only way you can really make money is through the export trade.

And that's what's happening all too often with our school systems all over the country, is they will go the cheapest route. You know, schools are very cash-strapped right now, and they really look to the cheapest options. And it's very ironic, because I think the children and the teachers, if they only knew this dirty little secret, would be horrified and would stop - take action to stop it at once.

GROSS: Now, you know, another thing about the implication of, like, your old computer ending up in a dump in Ghana, Ghana is a big place for cyber-crime. And if your computer is more or less intact in this dump, can cyber-criminals get your Social Security number or your credit card numbers that had once been on your computer?

Mr. PUCKETT: Absolutely. And, in fact, when we went to Nigeria in 2005 -we did a similar expose in Nigeria called "The Digital Dump" - we gathered up hard drives at that time, and we had them examined forensically by an outfit in Switzerland who very easily was able to go in and get all of the data off of those hard drives.

And we found amazing things. We found a hard drive from the World Bank with all of the internal documents. We found a hard drive from Wisconsin Child Protective Custody Services with all the private data about the children that were in private custody - just amazing information that should have been kept absolutely private, because in the wrong hands, you can have identity theft. You can have blackmail. You can have all kinds of horrors that they're very good at in parts of West Africa.

And they know that. They know they have a big fraud problem. To give you an idea of how serious this issue is, when we first went to do this work in Nigeria, we were asking for hard drives in the marketplace. And once they found out that we were interested in the ones that were - not been wiped, that were just fresh out of the machines, the price went up dramatically, of course. But we still were able to get them for about $25 a hard drive.

Now, if you go to Ghana and ask for a hard drive that has not been wiped, that is just full of data, it'll cost you about $300. So people know that there's value, ugly, negative, crime-ridden value to be had in that old data storage unit. And it is something to be really concerned about. Even if you don't care about the environment, I hope that people would care about losing their private data.

GROSS: How do you protect yourself from that?

Mr. PUCKETT: When you turn over your equipment, they are required to inform the consumer that there is data on there and have them choose whether to have it wiped or not. And hopefully, people will say we want it to be wiped.

And what they do, basically, to do that is they run software through it that overwrites it about, you know, seven or eight times, and that makes it extremely difficult to ever get that data back. It can be done with them spending millions of dollars perhaps, but for all intents and purposes, it's completely expunged.

Another way, of course, is to completely shred the hard drive. But since we like to promote reuse of equipment, we advocate for the wiping option.

GROSS: How does the little, handheld electronic device that I thought was okay to put in the dumpster end up in China, or the little computer that I thought was fine to put in the dumpster end up in China?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, it's those people that, you know, think they're doing the right thing. That's the sad irony of it. They go to a recycler. And the recycler makes all kinds of claims of being very environmentally sound. You can go and just see hundreds of these websites, if you Google around in your own neighborhood, for electronics recyclers.

What happened was when people starting discovering that this waste stream was growing so dramatically - you know, we're making 50 million metric tons a year now of electronic waste globally. When people found this out, they started going: Oh, my goodness. We can't put this hazardous material into our landfill. So they started passing laws and rules and regulations saying: Don't put it in the landfill. Let's try to divert this equipment to recycling.

So the business of recyclers became very lucrative, but recycler can be a recycler in name only. So these so-called recyclers have found out that that they can make a lot more money just exporting this material, because the U.S. laws completely allow it.

And they're able to externalize the real costs of doing things in an environmentally responsible way. Externalizing basically means that you're making other people pay the bill for what really needs to be done, and they pay for it with their health and with their environment. and that's what's been taking place en masse, hundreds of containers every day.

So in the port of Hong Kong alone, for example, the brokers there have told me about 100 containers a day are coming in from North America of electronic waste. So it's a massive trade. And what has happened is we've passed laws to make recycling become the password. And unfortunately, it's the password to a lot of very sad results.

GROSS: Jim Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network. We'll talk more about e-waste in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about what happens to our computers, TVs and electronic devices when we're done with them and they enter the world of e-waste. Because of toxins inside, it's hazardous and, in many places, illegal for them to be in a landfill. But even if you recycle them, the recycler may end up shipping the material to an e-waste dump in China, Ghana, India or another developing country where people eke out a living smashing and burning electronic devices to extract the valuable metals inside and, in the process, poison the water, the air and themselves.

Let's get back to our interview with Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, whose mission is to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis.

So even if you're trying to do the right thing and you bring your electronic device to an electronic recycling center, it might actually be sent abroad and dumped in one of those e-waste dumps. So how do you know whether you're going to a place that's going to do that or not?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, this is a very good question. So you have about an 80 percent likelihood if you just were to go to Google and find a recycler, if you cared enough to really look at their website and try to assess how green they are, you still could be very fooled by that operation calling themselves what they are. Very likely, 80 percent chance that material will go offshore.

So how do you make sure that doesn't happen? Well, when we first released our report in 2002, we could not find one recycler that wasn't exporting some of the hazardous materials at least. And so, we went out into the recycling community and said we need some leaders here that are going to step up and we're going to do our best to drive the market towards you, towards your leadership even though you're going to take a cost risk here. You're going to take a hit initially but you're going to be doing the right thing.

And that program started out as being called the Pledge of True Stewardship and it's now involved into what we call the e-Stewards Initiative. And the e-Stewards are recyclers that are now committed to becoming certified. So they're not only committed to not dumping based on, you know, their word, they're actually committed to a certification so they'll be audited by independent auditors in an accredited system with certifying bodies, et cetera.

So they will be policed and they're willing to do that. And right now we have 43 companies that are e-Stewards, six of them have already been certified since April when we started launching the certifications, and 23 of them are contracted with certifying bodies to become certified.

GROSS: But even that, even the stewardship program that you created, I read that at least one recycling company violated their pledge and was shipping stuff to big dumps abroad.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. In seven years we had this case of a pledged e-Steward having been caught out and we have had to deal with that internally. That company is now contracted to be certified. They self-corrected themselves about a year ago. It was very troubling that this was found out, that - I mean that this really occurred. But I think that's a pretty good record in that many years of a system which was pretty much an honor system which is now going to become that much more rigorous with the full certification and third-party auditing methods. So that was at a time when we didn't have that certification in place and we hope it's going to be far more rigorously policed now.

GROSS: When an American recycling company is conscientious about being environmental and it's not shipping electronic devices and computer to developing countries for their dumps, what are they doing with it? What is the proper way - the most environmentally correct way of recycling computers and electronic devices?

Mr. PUCKETT: The first thing they've got to do is look at it and say, is this thing capable of being reused and suitable for being reused? Because reuse is always more environmentally sound - if you can give that an extra life, an extra several years. But if you have to recycle it for its materials value, you need to do in developed countries something that's less labor-intensive often, and that is to disassemble it mechanically or it can be done by hand. But more and more, a lot of recyclers are moving toward mechanical shredding and then very high-tech separation device - equipment.

So they take this stuff and they polarize it basically and they can separate the factions into a lead-based fraction, a copper-based fraction, aluminum-based, steel. And there are technologies now to do that. And so they create a stream that then goes to the next step, which will probably be a smelter if it's a metal or a plastics recycler if it's a plastic. And there you have to be very careful as well because that's probably the one of the more dirty parts of the operation is the actual smelting and refining.

And there, there are about a half a dozen smelters on the planet which are good environmental smelters and there's a whole lot of them that aren't. So that's why it's very important in our e-Stewards program we have strict rules on who they can use, et cetera.

But that's how it's done when you don't dump it offshore. You very carefully take those metals, take those plastics and try to recycle each one of them separately.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste and tries to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett. He's the founder of the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste - electronic waste.

So your group is named after the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty that was first passed in 1989. What is germane about this treaty to your work with e-waste?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. Well, if you've been listening to this point, you're probably thinking there ought to be a law, there ought to be a law. Well, in fact, there is a law and it's an international law and it's why we named our group the Basel Action Network. It's named after the Basel Convention. The treaty came about and was really called for by global outrage after there was a spate of exports of factory waste to African shores and to Venezuela and to Turkey, et cetera.

And it has been already implemented by 33 of the 41 countries to which that ban applies. So those 41 countries are the rich industrialized developed countries. For example, all of the European countries, this type export of electronics is completely illegal. Unfortunately...

GROSS: So that means what?

Mr. PUCKETT: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: That you have to take care of it in your own country?

Mr. PUCKETT: Exactly. And unfortunately, the United States, the world's most waste producing country per capita that we have, producing so much of this electronic waste and resulting in so much of this global trade I've been talking about, is not only not part of the Basel Ban Amendment but they haven't even ratified the original Basel Convention, the framework itself.

GROSS: Now, several states - I believe over 20 states - have passed laws pertaining to e-waste. What do most of those laws say? What do they regulate, exactly?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. So when people found out, wow, this stuff is toxic, we shouldn't be putting it in our landfills. We should be diverging from landfill to recycling. And that became the mantra and it also became the mantra for creating a lot of legislation.

The sad part is that the legislation that is possible by any state is unable to regulate foreign trade. By our federal Constitution, states don't have the right to regulate trade. So what in effect has happened is we have diverted all of this toxic material from our own landfills and prevented it from being dumped in our own backyards but it's allowed to be exported.

And so greater percentages are actually now, as a result of these 24 laws that are in the books now in our states, is going offshore. So we've had this very perverse effect cleaning up our own backyard but destroying that of our global neighbors by virtue of these laws. So clearly what's needed is a federal response. And, of course, we've gone on two tracks, one legislative and one market-based.

GROSS: So the states that have laws outlaw putting electronic devices in dumps but they don't outlaw shipping it overseas. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. PUCKETT: That's right. That's right. A lot of them don't even have the landfill bans but they have promotional efforts so that the responsible parties are the manufacturers and they will pay for the recycling. But the manufacturers are hiring all kinds of companies, none of which have a criteria necessarily that they will not export. So it's kind of the status quo. It's just that now the manufacturers are paying for diverting it from the landfill but now we have no restrictions on export.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of our e-waste from the United States ends up in China. And you've spoken about how the waste from the wealthy countries go to the poorer countries. And, you know, China is becoming a pretty prosperous country in terms of its bottom line. I'm not saying everybody in China is prosperous, but the country itself seems to be doing very well financially. And why is China taking in this waste?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, it's interesting. You know, it is illegal to bring it into China but it's still flooding their shores. It's being smuggled in through Hong Kong, through Vietnam, through other places. It's really a very - sadly a real toxic tide. It's flowing toward China still, even though they have banned it.

China is an interesting country. They've had some of the richest people in the world and some of the poorest and they have a real problem employing all those poor people. Right now, thousands of them are being employed in this very dirty trade, this very dirty occupation. And locally, they're turning a blind eye to it. Now in Beijing, they've banned it but the smuggling is going on, there is corruption that's allowing it to take place. So, so far there has been no real crackdown of any import that has been done in China to really stop this trade.

Now we've been working with the government in Hong Kong and we notified them of containers that we go to recyclers and take the numbers and we track them and we've seen about 200 containers now going offshore and we notified the Basel authorities and we do kind of our citizen enforcement in that way. But until very recently, the enforcement of the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban has been lax and China's part of that problem.

I think it's going to change now because we have recently gotten Interpol to create a special task force. The European Union has created a special task force. Even our own EPA, with our weak laws, are really anxious to do more enforcement actions and have started them against some of the recyclers that we've tipped them to. So we're starting to see more and more enforcement of the rules of the road. So I think things will change, that China will crackdown. It's just a matter of one to two years, I believe, before that will really take place.

GROSS: So if your group or another group finds out that a shipment is headed illegally from a shipment of old computers and electronic devices is headed illegally from Hong Kong to a dumping ground in China, if you intercept it, then what?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. What we've been doing is what we call citizen enforcement. So we, if you go to Google and you type in electronics recyclers in your city you see all these little pinpoints pop up and that's what we do. We often will have volunteers that will go and visit these recyclers and they will drive by and see a seagoing container sitting in their yard and will take a picture of it.

And there is the online capacity for people to trace and track where those containers go. So we will find a container sitting in a company in Colorado, say, and we will find out it's going straight to Hong Kong, which is where most of the ones we've been tracking are ending up.

So we will contact the competent authority in Hong Kong. They have been really good. They're competent authorities, Basel authorities that are designated by that international law, and they have been really good and they will take that container off the ship and search it. And if it has contraband, CRTs, batteries et cetera, and it they will then notify our U.S. CPA, they'll notify us and they'll ship it back.

So this has been happening quite routinely in Hong Kong. But even having said that, it's just the tip of the iceberg because we don't have the volunteer capacity to go everywhere and to be watching all of these containers. So they're about 100 of them coming in to Hong Kong every day and we're only getting maybe two or three a month that we're catching and they are being sent back.

GROSS: Sent back to the United States, to the original recyclers?

Mr. PUCKETT: To the U.S. They're being sent back to the U.S. Unfortunately, we have no laws really in the U.S. We have a very weak CRT rule that's easily circumvented and that's the only kind of laws other than fraud laws that our EPA enforcement people can use but they're really anxious to have these enforcement actions take place.

I've spoken with the enforcement people. They are doing their best. The ones we've exposed, like Supreme Electronics in New Jersey, Executive Recycling in Colorado, EarthEcycle of Pennsylvania, many others that we've exposed to by this technique are being prosecuted by the EPA enforcement. But they have a very difficult time, because our laws are so weak.

GROSS: What are the odds that toxins will be phased out of electronic products so that this won't be the crisis that it is now?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. That's a really good question. The odds are it won't happen at all unless we, as consumers, really demand it. I had the opportunity once of cornering the industry guru on this after a conference. And I asked him after he gave his speech - the gentleman's name was Robert Fall, and he was responsible for figuring out how industry was going to phase out toxics from the European legislation.

And he said, without batting an eye, when I asked him, how soon can we have a toxic free computer, he said 2015. And then he said but only if we're really pushed. So I said: Do you mean you have all the technologies and R&D done to know what the substitutes, and you can get the beryllium and the lead and cadmium out? And he said, absolutely. We know how to do that already. But he said unless were really pushed, it isn't going to happen. So, as consumers, we can push with our pocketbooks.

And what I would recommend, when you go to buy equipment, is there's some tools you can use. There's a program that's done by our own EPA called EPEAT, E-P-E-A-T, and you can find that online. Go to their website, and you can plug in your needs for a computer, and they will tell you which ones are most energy-efficient, which ones are going to use less toxics, etcetera. Similarly, Greenpeace has a report card called the Guide to Greener Electronics, and you can find that. And they rank the manufacturers. So you can choose a manufacturer has made the most inroads into getting the toxics out. And there's one other report card done by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, ETBC, and you can find their report card also online.

GROSS: So I'm feeling just a little bit guilty, here. I'm feeling like I'm saying Merry Christmas, and by the way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And by the way, that wonderful Christmas gift that you just bought or were given, it can help poison the planet. So any, like, final, like, kind of Christmassy kind of words for us about the gift that you've bought, received or the old gift that you're throwing out because it's replaced with a new one?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, the beautiful thing about electronics is we have some control over them. You know, we didn't have as much control over factories when they were polluting. We weren't the owners. We weren't the principal parties. But we have a real responsibility and an opportunity, because this is our equipment. And we can make sure we buy the right equipment and we can also make sure we get rid of it the right way.

GROSS: Well, Jim Puckett, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PUCKETT: Sure. Thank you.

GROSS: Jim Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste.

Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new Jimi Hendrix box set.

This is FRESH AIR.

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