Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Following Electronic Waste from Recyclers to Dumps in China

E-waste Trafficking: From Your Home to China by I-Hwa Cheng.

As shiny new electronics are being plugged in all across the country this week, many old items are being thrown out. A lot of consumers choose to recycle their old televisions, computers and other gadgets at electronic waste recycling centers, in an effort to prevent all of those plastics and chips from clogging up landfills and leaking waste into the ground.

But let’s say you drop off that old PlayStation at one of those recycling centers. Where does it go from there?

One reporter was determined to find out. I-Hwa Cheng, a graduate student in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and former intern at KUT News, decided to follow the trail of e-waste from recyclers in Texas to their final destination.

She started in Williamson County, Texas, at a “Hazardous Waste Collection Day.” She found residents dropping off computers, televisions and monitors for recycling by Goodwill Industries of Central Texas and Houston-based Waste Management Inc., America’s largest residential recycler. The goal was to give people in the area the opportunity to donate those end-of-life electronics.

“People tend to hold on to their electronics waste and keep them in their garages for a long time because they don’t know what to do with them,” Robin Llewellyn, director of environmental business services at Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, told Cheng.

The reporter found that most of the people at the event didn’t know where their old items were going next and they never asked either. One resident told her that she hoped they would take her old computer, replace the hard drive, and use it for education domestically.

(UPDATE: It is important to note that e-waste from this event did not go to dumping grounds in China. Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote to StateImpact Texas to say that “Waste Management is an e-Steward recycler that has 3rd party auditing to guarantee that the toxic waste is NOT shipped to China or any other non-OECD country under the strict definitions of the Basel Convention and BAN Amendment.  TCE has been very critical of Waste Management’s trash landfills, but with regards to e-waste, Waste Management has chosen to get the highest level of certification.”)

The forgetfulness is taken advantage of by illegal e-waste traders worldwide. In reality, Cheng found that much e-waste ends up abroad, in growing dumping grounds in China, India and West Africa. This waste “can cause harm to local people’s health and the environment when discarded products are recycled by burning, breaking and dismantling,” Cheng reported as part of a dissertation for her graduate journalism degree.

While the United States is the world’s biggest producer of electronic waste, generating around 2.5 million tons of it annually, Cheng found it is “mostly unregulated by the federal government, which allows private companies to choose their own methods of recycling.” The Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that a significant portion of the nation’s e-waste is exported.

The biggest importer of e-waste? China. Her must-see video report from a trip to one of the largest dumping grounds, Guiyu, can be viewed above.

Some of Cheng’s other findings show how large the issue is:

  • Last year consumers worldwide bought 350.9 million personal computers and 417 million mobile phones, according to the research company Gartner Inc. The global market of electronic waste is growing with consumerism; it will reach 53 million tons by 2012 from 42 million in 2008, according to a report by TechNavio, a market research firm specializing in hardware field.
  • There is still no mandatory certification process for electronic waste recyclers in the U.S.– any company can claim to be a responsible recycler.
  • The Basel Convention of 1989 forbids sending hazardous waste from developed nations to developing ones. The United States is one of only three countries to have signed but not ratified the convention; the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan. It is still legal to export e-waste from the U.S.
  • There is no official data of how much e-waste is exported because the U.S. government does not track or monitor it.
  • Guiyu, China, processes about 1.5 million tons of e-waste each year, pulling in $75 million in revenue, according to the Chinese government. Environmentalists believe that is it the largest electronic waste processing center on earth.
  • 75 percent of e-waste in Guiyu comes from North America, according to the Basel Action Network, an American toxic trade watchdog organization.
  • Many workers in Guiyu are from distant provinces such as Guangxi, Hunan and Sichuan. They make the equivalent of about $7 to $10 per day, says an e-waste trader.
  • The workers adopt the primitive methods without protective equipment: burning the materials to extra copper, using acid stripping to get the gold from circuit boards and plucking off the microchips from circuit boards by hands. Lack of technology and improper recycling processes have caused serious impact on local environment and people’s health.
  • A study by Shantou University took blood samples from 165 children, ages 1 to 6, in Guiyu; 82 percent of them had blood/lead levels of more than 100, which is considered unsafe by international health experts. Guiyu also has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, according to Shantou University.
  • The Chinese government has officially banned electronic waste imports in 2002 and adopted the Basel Convention. But foreign e-waste still finds its way to the Chinese market through Hong Kong, where they have their own legal system.
  • E-waste arriving in Hong Kong will typically be sent into China in trucks or small boats, according to environmental watchdog Greenpeace China.
  • About 80 percent of the containers the group tracks leaving America are going to Hong Kong, according to Basel Action Network.
  • There are two domestic third-party certification recycling entities in the U.S., Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and e-Steward. But neither group’s certification is mandatory.
  • There are only 14 recyclers in Texas that have third-party certification.
  • A recycling law passed in Texas in 2007 requires makers of computer equipment (except televisions) to develop and implement recycling plans. Currently, 78 manufacturers representing 123 brands are participating in the program, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

I-Hwa Cheng was born and raised in Taiwan. She just received her master’s degree in photojournalism at University of Texas at Austin. She is fluent in both Mandarin and English and will be going back to Taiwan next year to work as a professional photographer and reporter.



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