There are few tech-related gigs where getting pelted with rocks is an expected workplace hazard. Seattle’s Jim Puckett holds one of those jobs.
Twenty years ago — when consumers were falling in love with iMac’s candy colors and most computers had CD-ROM drives — Puckett began raising the alarm about the hazards of dumping electronic waste that can contain mercury, lead, cadmium and flame retardants.
Puckett is the founder of the nonprofit Basel Action Network, or BAN. For decades he’s waged an often lonely battle to stop the U.S. and other wealthy countries from using poor countries as toxic e-waste junkyards.
Americans are tossing or recycling more than 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices every day, according to federal data from 2010. Last year, Washington state alone collected more than 37 million pounds of discarded TVs, computers and monitors through its E-Cycle program.
“It is still a tremendous issue,” Puckett said.
Only half of U.S. states have programs requiring e-waste to be recycled instead of landfilled. In a program like Washington state’s, the products are processed to recover and recycle metals and plastics. Some of the working items that are not yet obsolete can be reused. Roughly 40 percent of the unusable waste is recycled, based on BAN’s estimates, while the rest is incinerated or sent to a landfill.
America is the only developed country that has not ratified an agreement known as the Basel Convention, which says it’s illegal to export hazardous electronic waste. That allows U.S. handlers to ship the trash, but it’s still unlawful for developing nations to import it. Most American e-waste is sent to Asia, according to investigations by BAN. The countries receiving the outdated or broken electronics often lack regulations and enforcement to protect workers trying to extract metals from the waste, exposing themselves to toxic chemicals and poisoning drinking water and the environment.
The fight to control e-waste has sent Puckett around the globe, most recently to Hong Kong and Taiwan, peering over fences to discover where our gadgets are going to die — and drawing the attention of angry rock throwers along the way.
Videos and photos collected by BAN over the years show workers picking through landfills piled high with e-waste and crouched over open fires or acid baths, trying to extract and recapture minute metal components from the debris. Thanks in large part to BAN’s scrutiny, those practices are less uncommon now in many areas — but in some cases the dangerous work has just relocated.
The town of Guiyu in mainland China was once a hot spot for e-waste exports, but after government crackdowns the hazardous business shifted to the New Territories area of Hong Kong. Current threats in the new locations include junkyard fires and workers’ exposure to mercury, flame retardants and other pollutants as they dismantle the waste in primitive conditions.
The need for controls keeps growing as electronics permeate every facet of our lives — just look at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas where companies were pitching the newest e-gadgets, some of questionable utility, including a “smart” mirror and a toothbrush endowed with artificial intelligence.
At the same time, many environmentalists — and nonprofit donors — have shifted their attention to fighting the massive threat posed by climate change. BAN’s staff has shrunk from 12 people to nine employees a year ago to its current five, housed in a modest office in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
There has been progress in combating the unsafe disposal of electronic waste. Washington launched an E-Cycle program eight years ago, and BAN runs the e-Stewards program to certify responsible recyclers. But recent reports from BAN show that vigilance is needed.
BAN teamed up with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab to track e-waste using GPS devices. They hid trackers in flat-screen monitors with mercury backlights, lead-containing computer monitors and printers that were delivered to recycling companies on the West Coast, the Midwest and Northeast.
The trackers worked great, reliably mapping the path of the trashed electronics. Unfortunately, they showed that even certified recycling companies were shipping to developing countries — including Seattle’s Total Reclaim, a company long viewed a recycling leader in Washington.
“I was totally crushed,” Puckett said, to learn that Total Reclaim was shipping waste abroad. The company and its founder, Craig Lorch, were early supporters of BAN’s rigorous e-Stewards certification. “He was an iconic recycler that started this program.”
The trackers, which were planted in 205 waste electronics, revealed that at least 40 percent of the items dropped at U.S. recyclers were being exported — most likely illegally, at least for the importing country. Puckett guesses the real number is probably closer to 50 percent, given that some of the transponders might have stopped signaling before reaching foreign ports.
“People used to be able to hide and lie,” he said. The trackers have changed that. “They’re like little lie detectors, they report every 24 hours, ‘Here I am. Here I am.’”
As a result of the investigation by BAN and MIT, this fall the Washington Department of Ecology fined Total Reclaim $444,000 for shipping defunct TVs and computer monitors to Hong Kong.
The penalty is under appeal and Lorch declined to comment for this story. But Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for Ecology’s e-waste program, said that Total Reclaim is now in compliance. Their fixes included installing processing equipment to grind some of the electronic parts and capture the mercury they contain.
“This was a serious blow and Total Reclaim was the largest single processor (in Washington),” Wineke said. “It’s serious, but the program as a whole is working.”
The tracking devices also showed that Goodwill Industries was exporting e-waste, including computers that Dell had contracted with the group to dispose of safely.
“It was a stab in the eye of those who were saying the (e-waste export) problem is solved,” Puckett said.
Part of the challenge, said Puckett, is that the electronics industry creates products intending for them to become obsolete and frequently replaced. To reduce the harm caused by e-waste, he encourages people to choose greener products, as rated by the EPA’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), and to recycle them with e-Stewards certified companies. He would also like products, particularly those used by businesses, to be offered through lease programs to incentivize the production of longer-lasting items.
As one would expect, you would not have seen Puckett cruising the aisles of CES searching for the next hot electronic device. He owned his last computer, a MacBook Pro, for 10 years.
“It finally melted down,” he said.