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.



  • OscarNelson71

    She ought to follow the car batteries from her car across the border into Mexico. Same story, bigger problem

  • Mon_yen

    Good to know

  • Stacy Guidry

    Great job, I-Hwa!

  • Geralddavis

    This was horribly irresponsible.  Goodwill Industries of Central Texas is the founding partner with Dell of Reconnect, which is a solution to this problem.  All donations given to Goodwill are either refurbished to working condition, sold as working parts, or sold as scrap to to third party recyclers–independently audited–so this very problem is prevented.  These efforts teach people with disabilities job skills and the money made from sales fund even more programs with the goal of employing people with disabilities in the community.  To link Goodwill to this disaster as anything other than a solution is very poor journalism.

  • Stacy Guidry

    Hi All,

    I know I said “Great job, I-Hwa!” earlier because I know her personally, but after re-reading this piece, she makes it out as though Goodwill is dumping overseas. THIS IS NOT THE CASE! When I first read this article, I didn’t take away from it that Goodwill had been made out to be a culprit in the e-waste dumping scheme because I know of their strengths in using “best practices”.

    Goodwill works with Dell and Waste Management, both e-Stewards recyclers. e-Stewards (estewards.org) is the highest standard of recycling known globally, as it does not allow for e-waste to end up in landfills, incinerators, prisons or in underdeveloped nations. It is recognized by the EPA and is the standard that many larger electronics manufacturers and recyclers are striving for, especially in states that have laws requiring producers to takeback and recycle old equipment for consumers.

    As a person working on the campaign to bring about free computer and TV recycling in Texas, I can wholeheartedly say that without the help of Goodwill, we would not be nearly as far in this fight as we have come. Goodwill is one of the brightest shining stars in our state for what model e-waste recycling should look like. 

    • Mike Enberg

      Mike, here, from the e-Stewards Initiative. Two corrections to the comment above: Our website URL is http://www.e-stewards.org.

      And Dell is not an e-Stewards recycler. We believe Dell should be working with us to provide the public with independent, credible, third-party verification that they are responsibly recycling e-waste. But they are not, yet.

  • I am interviewed in the video and have working to promote producer takeback recycling of electronic waste and to stop the dumping of toxic electronic waste since 2002. I am very concerned
    that this piece implies that the materials dropped off at
    the Goodwill event in Williamson County are ending up in Guiyu, China.
    In fact,
    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 developing
    country under the international treaty governing toxic waste trade.TCE has sometimes 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, namely e-Steward.


    Central Texas Goodwill has taken leadership nationally to work to solve the e-waste problem and has worked with their sister Goodwills around the state and the nation to promote responsible handling of electronics waste.

    The problem of export dumping is horrendous. I personally visited an e-waste dump in Accra Ghana. But incorrectly implicating entities that are working to solve the problem is not responsible either.

    • Thank you for making this distinction, Robin and for getting in touch with us. We have added a paragraph to the piece to explain that Waste Management uses 3rd-party auditing and does not send e-waste to China. We will be following up with the reporter as well. Thank you again for contacting us.

  • I-Hwa Cheng

    This is I-Hwa. I am sorry that my works are confusing people in a way that I certainly wasn’t meant to. The story you see here is only like 20 percent of my 5,000 words(and 11-minute-long-documentary) thesis and I understand chances are that many things are not fully explained when my thesis got shortened. I was using the recycling event only to show how CITIZENS think of their e-waste
    and don’t really know where it’s going or don’t care about it at all. In fact, I did interviewed Goodwill and WM about how they take care of e-waste but this is not my point of story. I’m looking at this issue in a bigger picture – forgetfulness. Do you really ask when you toss your e-waste away? Do you think it will just disappear after you drop your e-waste to the recyclers? Do you really THINK before you are on electronic shopping spree? From my observation, there are only environmentalists and responsible organizations care about it. When I was in the recycling event, there was one couple who is interested in this issue but they never found any way that they could know where exactly e-waste end up. And they were glad I did this topic as my thesis. Here I am not talking about something biodegradable but a bunch of toxic materials. That’s why it is an importance global issue.

    My rest of thesis
    is intended to focus on the 50-80% of American e-waste that ends up in
    dumps in China and the town Guiyu.That is all. I apologize again for not making the point clear enough when I shortened my story. Hope you all can understand the real purpose behind the story.


  • Dadams

    I can help your company become R2 Certified – David – 888.331.7995

  • This video is very devastating and the only solution to the problem is using R2 certified electronic recycling companies to ensure the materials are properly handled and recycled in a safe and secure manner.  R2 facilities are required to audit their downstream vendors to ensure products do not end up in non-OECD countries but only at companies that properly handle and dispose of electronic equipment.

  • I knew this was a big problem, but seeing it in a video is shocking…


    These certification programs are a scam aimed at putting the little guy out of business and making the people who came up with these certifications richer. They give you a set of rules to follow and charge you thousands of dollars to be labeled R2 or E stewards. come on think about it you think the people who came up with these certifications are doing it for fun?! The people who made these certification are just trying to get there cut of the electronic recycling game without having to do much if any hard labor. These certification programs make it harder for anyone recycling electronics to make good money.

  • lordjakian

    I know for a fact that certified companies will send electronic scrap/waste to China. They have a pipeline of companies they use to enable them to legally wash their hands of liability for where it goes.

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